COSTA MESA, Calif.-Credit unions are picking up auto lending share from the big banks.

That's according to the latest data from Experian that shows credit unions increased share at the same time the Wall Street banks lost a little of their stronghold.

At the end of 2012 credit unions moved to 18% share of the overall auto lending market, up 3.9% year over year, Experian reported. Banks dropped to 41.2% overall share, off 1.8% from the previous year. But what may be most telling for credit unions, which have faced strong competition from major banks the last two years, is that most of the share lost by the banks came from the large institutions.

"The largest banks, the top 20 lenders that have really dominated the market, for the most part saw their domination slip as more smaller regional lenders picked up some share," said Melinda Zabritski, director of automotive credit. "I think a lot of that was scooped up by credit unions."

The big boost to credit unions came via a big improvement in new car share, according to Experian (see chart). Asked what could have caused the big increase in credit union's new loan share, Zabritski surmised it may have been CUs dropping their rates.

On the heels of the 2012 gain on the banks, CUs had a strong January. For just the second time in eight years, the CU industry's vehicle loan portfolio increased in January, according to a recent CUNA Mutual Group CU Trends Reports. Gains in the new and used portfolios contributed to the 0.6% month-only growth. The total CU vehicle loan portfolio increased in each of the past 12 months and now stands $15.6 billion (9.3%) above the January 2012 level. Annual growth in January is at its highest level in more than seven years, CMG stated.

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