The jobs report and minutes from the Federal Reserve’s June meeting were the economic highlights of the week, but they are, respectively, a lagging indicator and old news. This column instead digs into the auto market, where there is an underappreciated ticking time bomb.
Lucky Lopez is a car dealer who has been in the business for about 20 years. In recent meetings with bankers, where he bids on repossessed vehicles before they go to auction, he has noticed some common characteristics of the defaulted loans. Most of the loans on recently repossessed cars originated during 2020 and 2021, whereas origination dates are normally scattered because people fall on hard times at different times; loan-to-value ratios, or the amount financed relative to the value of the vehicle, are around 140%, versus a more normal 80%; and many of the loans were extended to buyers who had temporary pops in income during the pandemic. Those monthly incomes fell—sometimes by half—as pandemic stimulus programs stopped, and now they look even worse on an inflation-adjusted basis and as the prices of basics in particular are climbing.