The number of Americans buying autos neared a record high last year but a possible downside to the growth is drawing comparisons to the subprime mortgage boom.

Chris Kukla, with the Center for Responsible Lending, believes the increase in auto lending is driven by investors seeking higher returns. People are borrowing more money to buy a car and, to make it more "affordable," loan terms are stretched. 

Moody's Analytics' economist Mark Zandi said the rise in auto lending comes with a price. The number of subprime borrowers missing payments is at a seven-year high. Auto dealers are extending loans to more people with weak credit, and more clearly are having trouble making payments.

But while that's a concern, Zandi believes the trend and impact to the economy shouldn't be exaggerated. The auto industry is much smaller than the mortgage market, which melted down several years following the subprime explosion.

Zandi does caution that it's important to remember at least one lesson from the housing bust: Regulators need lots of information about what's happening in the markets, and they need to monitor it closely before troubles escalate.

Auto financing officials counter that comparisons to the mortgage market are misinformed.

Jack Tracey of the National Automotive Finance Agency believes the subprime boom was fueled by the incorrect assumption among investors that housing prices would always rise. Automobiles depreciate quickly, thus the opposite holds true for auto lending.

Tracey added that securitizations have performed welll in bad time, as well as good, and that there's no reasonable expectation that the auto industry will implode.

The rise in subprime auto lending, he said, is simply an outgrowth of the fact that more people are returning to the workforce. 

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