Thanks to years of preparation and a little bit of luck, big banks have dodged an accident waiting to happen in auto lending.
Detroit's problems in the second quarter — including the bankruptcies of Chrysler LLC and General Motors Corp. — inflicted minimal pain on lenders to car buyers, parts suppliers and dealers.
In recent years, Comerica Inc., Huntington Bancshares Inc., M&T Bank Corp., Capital One Financial Corp. and others have extended fewer and tighter loans to car buyers, moved away from making loans to dealers specializing in domestic brands and benefited from higher used-car prices.
Their success in stanching auto-related losses clearly shows the benefits of identifying and dealing with a troubled loan category early, experts said.
"Detroit has been a slow-motion train wreck," said Jeff Davis, an analyst with First Horizon National Corp.'s FTN Equity Capital Markets Corp. "That's not to say that there hasn't been pain. This thing could have ended a lot worse."
Writing fewer and more conservative auto loans has been the centerpiece of Comerica's automotive strategy, and analysts have praised the way the Dallas company has handled its automotive portfolio. Comerica has deep ties to Detroit, having formerly been based there. But in the past few years, it has extended fewer loans to suppliers and dealers that rely on business from the Big Three.
"They recognized the problems early that the auto industry was going to come under, and acted early," said Peter J. Winter, an analyst with Bank of Montreal's BMO Capital Markets Corp. "They have done a better job than I would have expected, given how severe the auto dealers' problems have been."
Comerica had an average $3.6 billion in outstanding dealer services loans in the second quarter, down about 30% from a year earlier. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler dealerships accounted for about 21% of that portfolio. Four years ago those customers made up 41% of its dealer portfolio. Today, 80% of its dealers sell foreign cars, with about half of its foreign dealer network specializing in Toyota and Honda cars.
Though Chrysler is closing 789 dealers, only 11 are Comerica customers. Comerica lends to only 20 of the 1,323 dealerships GM has slated to close.
In its auto supplier book, Comerica charged off a $21 million leverage-lease related to General Motors. Aside from that credit, Comerica charged off just $6 million of its $1.3 billion in loans to foreign and domestic automakers and suppliers.
"Many of our customers who supply GM or Chrysler have been named as essential suppliers by both of those automakers," Ralph W. Babb Jr, Comerica's chairman and chief executive, said in a conference call last month. "As a result, they are expected to continue to operate."
Huntington, of Columbus, Ohio, and M&T, of Buffalo, have similarly skirted ill effects from Detroit by whittling down their automotive loan portfolios.
"Three years ago, we told you there was a problem" in loans to auto dealers, "and today we don't have much of a problem, right?" Rene Jones, the chief financial officer and executive vice president of M&T, said in a conference call last month. "Because we've worked on it, and we got through that cycle fast."
Auto lenders have also benefitted from a surprising surge in value of used cars in recent months.
Chris Brendler, an analyst with Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., said the rise in used-car prices is bolstering lenders to car buyers.
"What's happening with used-car prices is that with the new cars [sales] down so much, trades are down," he said. That, in turn, has driven up the value of used cars. This could bode well for lenders because it means they will recover more money on bad auto loans, since they can sell repossessed cars at a higher price. Troubled borrowers may also be able to unload their cars for a profit, enabling them to pay down their debt.
"It's been a little bit of a surprise," Brendler said. Used-car prices "got crushed late last year and just bounced back extremely strongly."
The trend has been a boon for Capital One.
The company specializes in making loans to buyers of secondhand cars.
Its auto finance profits rose about 36% in the second quarter, while the category's provisions fell about 24%.
Its net chargeoff rate in its auto finance book, meanwhile, fell to 3.65% from 4.88% in the prior quarter.