It may not give them an edge over their competitors, but if credit unions stick to what they know when it comes to pricing for vehicle lending, it could pay off in the long run in building return and profits.
Brian Turner, director of advisory services at Southwest Corporate Investment Services, a wholly owned CUSO of Southwest Bridge Corporate Federal Credit Union, offered that suggestion as the industry grapples with record low new vehicle lending activity. It remains to be seen what the impact will be after Toyota and other Japan- headquartered auto manufacturers recently announced they may have to suspend production at plants in the United States in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.
"Credit unions must stick to their principles when it comes to pricing. Some have ventured into presuming a shorter duration on their vehicle loans while retaining the same pricing spread," Turner said. "This lowers their offering rate and significantly reduces the return and profitability on this product sector, oftentimes for no reason."
According to data tracked by Southwest Bridge, NAFCU and Data Trac Corp., the national average rate offered by credit unions on a 48-month used car loan was 4.22% as of March 31. The highest rate was 10.25% and the lowest was 1.95%. On a 48-month new car loan, the national average rate was 3.97% with the highest at 7% and the lowest at 1.90%.
It’s in the used vehicle lending category where credit unions have taken command. After fixed-rate first mortgages, used auto loans were the second largest share of credit unions’ loan portfolios at 17.9%, the most current data from CUNA’s "Monthly Credit Union Estimates" revealed. Still, for the period tracked through February, used auto loans fell 0.2% and new auto loans dropped 1.2%.
Turner said an adjustment in consumer behavior, especially in any economic downturn, may be among the reasons why credit unions are experiencing more activity on the used car lending side. Over the past 30 months, consumer credit has declined by $258 billion, he pointed out. As a result, the demand for loans had been adversely impacted.
"Consumers, impacted by a weak employment market and falling home prices, become more cautious with their money," Turner said. "This has caused them to defer most spending, especially on big ticket items [such as] autos, homes, appliances, electing to lower their household debt burden instead."
Meanwhile, credit unions are in the business of extending credit to members, Turner said. In 2009, loans outstanding increased 1.1% after increasing 6.7% the year before, he offered. In 2010, loans fell 1.3% and through the first quarter of 2011 probably fell another 2.5%. The government recently reported that domestic vehicle sales rose 6.2% in February to an annualized pace of 10.2 million units, Turner said. Combined, domestic and imports sales increased 6.4% to 13.4 million units. This is good news for the credit union industry, which experienced a 5% decline in vehicle loans outstanding in 2010 with new vehicle loans falling 17%, he pointed out.
According to NAFCU’s March "Vehicle Sales Macro Data Flash Report," despite the slight retraction in vehicles sales last month, the overall vehicle market recovery remains on track. Sales continued to benefit from the improving economic climate, rising consumer confidence, improving access to credit and leases and the release of pent-up demand. The recent surge in gasoline prices resulted in a demand shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles during the month. NAFCU said contrary to 2008, U.S. car manufacturers are now better equipped to deal with a strong rise in gasoline prices but they are still more dependent on less fuel-efficient trucks and SUVs than their major international competitors.
"When economic circumstances prevail in the marketplace, it becomes less about interest rates and more about spending behavior," Turner said. "This is very apparent during the past recession and subsequent recovery. At those times, even 0% financing doesn’t generate loan volume."
The latest industry data showed that certain states such as Texas, Louisiana, New Jersey and South Carolina had higher rates for 48-month new and used vehicle loans. Turner said he believes that any divergence in rates is evidence of the geographical differences of the economic marketplace. These states may be in regions "that are more fast-tracked on the road to recovery."
"Higher loan rates and lower share rates may be attributable to stronger growth and stability whereas the converse may signal continued struggles," Turner suggested.