Overdue auto payments grow as gas prices climb

July 13, 2008|By Susan Tompor | Susan Tompor,Detroit Free Press

Could gas at $4 a gallon or higher be one of the culprits behind late car payments?

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Economy.com in West Chester, Pa., said auto loan delinquencies will keep climbing for another 12 months. By his estimate, auto delinquencies would hit a peak in the second half of 2009.

His reasoning? We'll be looking at a weaker job market, falling values for SUVs and trucks, high levels of debt - and yes, budget-busting gas prices.

Think of it this way: If some consumers are already paying an extra $65 to $70 a month to put gas in one car, they have even less money to put toward a $400 or $500 monthly car payment.

And what happens at $5 a gallon?

Auto delinquencies have been on a fairly steady uptick.

The number of auto loans 30 days or more overdue hit 1.92 percent in the first quarter - up from 1.9 percent for the fourth quarter of 2007 - for loans made directly to the consumer by banks or credit unions, according to the American Bankers Association's Consumer Credit Delinquency Bulletin. The percentage was 1.68 percent for the first quarter of 2007.

The number of overdue auto loans hit 3.09 percent for loans made through auto dealers or third parties, according to the American Bankers Association. That's down from 3.13 percent for the fourth quarter in 2007.

However, auto delinquencies for loans made through dealers have shot up since late 2004, when the rate was 1.35 percent.

Zandi said his numbers indicate that auto delinquencies are showing no signs of stabilizing.

Families are facing a financial squeeze on many fronts.

James Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association in Washington, said consumers are finding themselves with fewer resources to manage debt, as they cope with rising food prices, rising gas prices, cuts in overtime hours, job losses and little income growth.

"Increasingly, it's a story about a broader economic slowdown," Chessen said.

Late payments on home-equity lines of credit hit an 11-year high in the first quarter, according to the American Bankers Association.

Higher gas prices put more of a squeeze on households.

The national average price for regular gas was $4.11 a gallon on July 6, according to AAA. That compares with $2.96 a gallon a year ago.

Someone who drives 15,000 miles a year - and gets 20 miles to a gallon - would now be paying about $257 a month for gas - up from about $185 a month last year.

Brian Bethune, chief U.S. financial economist for Global Insight in Lexington, Mass., said troubles with auto loans won't improve until the housing market turns around.

After all, many overstretched consumers may try to pay the mortgage before making a car payment - especially if that car is an SUV or truck that's sharply declining in value because of higher gas prices.

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