CHARLOTTE, N.C. Stung by losses from lower-than-expected resale prices for used cars, Bank of America Corp. has reorganized its auto leasing operations and closed the dealerships it had used to unload vehicles coming off leases.
Bank of America said it will close one of its four lease operations centers, on New Yorks Long Island, as it tries to control losses in an auto leasing business that has suffered in recent quarters. Some of that centers work will be outsourced; the rest will be divided among the other three. The company shut its Price Auto Outlet centers in Linden, N.J., Orlando, and Anaheim, Calif., last week and the one in Bethpage, N.Y., last month. It also closed its Greensboro, N.C., auto auction operation and an online sales site, www.priceautoutlet.com. These closings ended Bank of Americas unusual strategy of selling off-lease vehicles directly to consumers through its own dealerships.
The company, which owns a portfolio of about 550,000 auto leases, had previously said it was scaling back its auto leasing operations but provided no details.
A long list of financial institutions have cut back or quit the business because of mounting losses from lower-than-expected residuals, the sales price commanded by vehicles coming off leases. First Union Corp. and Wachovia Corp. got out of the business in 1999, and the auto finance unit of GE Capital stopped taking new lease applications on Dec. 1.
Floyd Robinson, the president of Bank of America Auto Group in Jacksonville, Fla., and the companys top auto finance executive, said Monday that it was returning to a more traditional approach auctioning vehicles to dealers.
The company had hoped to sell the last three Price Auto Outlets but closed them March 13 after having failed to find a buyer, Mr. Robinson said. It will still try to sell the buildings and land, he said.
Mr. Robinson declined to say how many employees would be affected by those closing and that of the Melville, N.Y., operations center.
In an internal memorandum last month, he said the company would help employees who are laid off find new jobs and would pay them an undisclosed severance package.
Bank of Americas auto lending group is reorganizing in part because some dealers are unhappy about competing with the company for used car sales, Mr. Robinson wrote in the memo. In discussion with our dealer customers, they have made it clear that they see our present strategy with Price Auto Outlet as one that competes against them.
But Richard Bove, an analyst at Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Fla., said the company clearly is getting out of a business where it has had trouble making money.
The reason that Bank of America is closing down these leasing facilities is that, first off, the company made a significant error in the way it calculated the residuals for these lease contracts, and that caused some significant losses, Mr. Bove said.
Banking companies began emphasizing auto leasing a few years ago in hopes of regaining market share lost to the financing arms of automakers, which began offering low-cost leases in order to sell more vehicles.
As they tried to compete with the automakers, the banking companies sought ways to bring down the cost of leases, including raising estimates of how much they might recoup by selling a vehicle at the end of a lease. This boosted sales of cars, especially sport-utility vehicles, and brought the companies a rush of new leases. But the banking companies have since suffered from residuals that have proved lower than estimates.
Among those affected by lower-than-expected used car prices have been Bank of America, Bank One Corp., and Huntington Bancshares of Columbus, Ohio, all of which announced charges during the past several quarters.
Bank of America has been among the hardest hit. In a third-quarter conference call in October, James Hance, the companys chief financial officer, said residuals were running about $75 million a quarter below expectations. During the third quarter it took a $257 million charge to write off the lower-than-expected values.
During the fourth quarter, the company again cited disappointing residuals as a major factor in a decline in noninterest income. In recent quarters it also has grown a bit more conservative by reducing its estimates of residuals and boosting its reserves to account for low residuals.
In its January earnings announcement, the company said unexpectedly high charges for auto lease residuals took another bite out of its earnings in the fourth quarter.
Mr. Robinson said Bank of America is still competing for auto leases, though its mix of business has shifted. The percentage of leases in the companys auto financing portfolio has been cut in half recently, to about 20%, he said.
Mr. Bove said banking companies are at a disadvantage when competing against the automakers financing arms, which have little to distract them from the business of financing new car purchases and leases.
In all traditional asset-based businesses, whether it is mortgages, auto leases, or credit cards, what were finding is that monoline companies have a streamlined delivery system or distribution system, which is more effective or more efficient than what most banks have, he said.
The banking companies are struggling to find success not only in auto leasing, but in asset-based consumer financing in general, Mr. Bove said. I think the issue is whether the banks can develop asset strategies which are profitable in the consumer area. Over the past few years they have not been able to.