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Lenders pull back on riskier auto loans

WASHINGTON — Lenders are pulling back on extending car loans to consumers with very poor credit histories, reversing a trend that had sparked fears of new financial bubble, according to a report released Tuesday by Moody’s Investors Service.

Robust auto sales have kept lenders busy in the past few years as Americans have opted to trade in aging vehicles. At the same time, private-equity firms have regained their appetite for securities made up of car loans because of the cash flow and minimal risk — cars can be easily repossessed and resold. In the face of all of this demand, more lenders began making loans to would-be car buyers with low credit scores, charging them double-digit interest.

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There are now reports of lenders placing subprime borrowers into loans they can’t afford, which has drawn comparisons to the subprime mortgage fiasco and led the Justice Department to launch a series of investigations. The surge in subprime auto lending has also caused regulators to warn an overheated market could spur high default rates, to the detriment of banks’ balance sheets.

It turns out, however, that banks, credit unions, and the finance arms of the car companies, or captives, have slowed their efforts to court borrowers at the low end of the credit-score spectrum, Moody’s said. That has eased the pressure for smaller finance companies to move further down the credit spectrum to remain competitive. As a result, average credit scores of subprime borrowers have edged up over the past two quarters.

Analysts at the credit rating agency also noted that the rate of late payments on subprime car loans, though on the rise, remains below the levels in the depths of the financial crisis. They suspect the performance of these loans will hold up unless lenders again court consumers with very weak credit.

‘‘Lenders are beginning to show some caution in lending to riskier borrowers. That caution, if it continues, could help rein in subprime auto loan losses,’’ Moody’s analysts wrote. ‘‘Subprime loan volumes are still high, although they have flattened somewhat over the past year.’’

Credit scores for subprime borrowers peaked in 2010. At the time, the average credit score for used vehicles, a popular choice among subprime borrowers, hovered around 653, but fell to 646 in the fourth quarter of 2013.

A surge in subprime loans led regulators to warn of an overheated market. But now lenders have cut back on courting low-credit-score borrowers.

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As lenders began accepting lower scores, they also began extending the length of the loans, which allows people to purchase more-expensive cars. Longer loan terms heighten the risk of borrowers defaulting. They can also lead to higher losses on repossessed cars, because smaller monthly payments mean the borrower will have paid less principal before defaulting, Moody’s said.

In June, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency pointed to extended terms and the explosion of subprime lending as ‘‘signs of increasing risk.’’ The bank regulator said lenders on average were issuing loans for new and used cars that were higher than the value of the cars, what’s known as loan-to- value. That means car prices are climbing and dealers are adding extended warranties and accessories such as sound systems to the financing. The high loan-to-values and longer terms, the regulator said, were causing banks to lose money on loans over the past two years.

Although the Moody’s report highlighted the risks the comptroller documented, analysts said that ‘‘Rising credit scores for used vehicle loans and higher loan interest rates underscore lenders’ growing caution.’’

Nevertheless, the ratings agency warned about the risks of securities backed by subprime auto loans from smaller lenders. Analysts said ‘‘smaller, inexperienced lenders with limited financial resources’’ would have trouble servicing loans if losses skyrocketed, and called on them to staff up just in case.

But it’s the large lenders that have attracted government attention. Federal prosecutors have launched investigations into the subprime underwriting standards and securitization at the financing arm of General Motors and the consumer-lending unit of the Spanish banking giant Santander, according to securities filings.

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