A record 7 million Americans have stopped paying their car loans, and even economists are surprised

car snowstormAP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

  • A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York revealed 7 million Americans are behind on their auto payments by at least 90 days.
  • Most of the Americans who have recently fallen behind on their car payments have low credit scores or are under age 30.
  • Fed economists said the rise in the number of delinquent borrowers is "surprising" considering a strong labor market and economy.

Millions of Americans are struggling with their car payments, and even economists are surprised.

According to a new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, more than 7 million Americans have reached serious delinquency status on their auto loans, meaning they're at least 90 days behind on payments.

Fed economists said this is "surprising" considering a strengthening labor market and economy.

People often prioritize car loans, as it's their way of getting to work and earning a paycheck, reported the Washington Post's Heather Long. The fact that a record number of Americans aren't making those payments is "usually a sign of significant duress among low-income and working-class Americans," Long wrote.

"The substantial and growing number of distressed borrowers suggests that not all Americans have benefitted from the strong labor market and warrants continued monitoring and analysis of this sector," Fed economists wrote in a blog post dissecting the report.

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The data shows that most of the borrowers whose auto loans have recently moved into delinquency are people under age 30 and people with low credit scores. Eight percent of borrowers with credit scores below 620 - otherwise known as subprime - went from good standing to delinquent on their auto loans in the fourth quarter of 2018.

And the data shows that most delinquencies come from auto-finance lenders rather than banks and credit unions.

The Fed found that half of outstanding loans from auto-finance companies are made to subprime borrowers, and 6.5% of those loans are more than 90 days overdue. That's compared to just 14% of outstanding loans from credit unions made to subprime borrowers, 0.7% of which are delinquent.

The delinquency figure represents a new high in the auto-loan market - over a million more people than were behind on auto loan payments at the end of 2010. More people have auto loans now than in 2010, so while the overall rate of delinquency is down, the total number of people who have fallen at least 90 days behind is higher.

Read more: American household debt just hit a new record high

The Fed has been tracking the auto-loan industry for more than five years, the economists noted in the blog post, and it's not the first time the group has rung the alarm. In 2017, a quarterly report from the Fed highlighted the nearly doubling of the rate of delinquencies in subprime auto loans originated by auto-finance companies since 2011, reported Business Insider's Matt Turner.

Turner also noted at the time that Wall Street was expressing concern over the subprime auto loan market as well. Meanwhile, Business Insider's Lauren Lyons Cole reported that Americans borrowed more money to buy cars than attend college between 2016 and 2017.

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