A few short years ago, “subprime” was almost an expletive. During the financial crisis, mortgages linked to subprime borrowers – or those with poor credit history – caused devastating losses; so much so that many asset managers declared they would never touch subprime again.
But the financial world has a short memory, particularly when easy money and innovation collide. In recent months subprime lending has quietly staged a surprisingly powerful return, not in relation to real estate, but another American passion – cars. Some wonder how long it will be before this new boom causes another wave of casualties, not just among naive consumers, but investors too.
The historical echoes are uncanny. During most of the past decade the amount of car-related debt grew only modestly. Yet outstanding car loans, which totalled $700bn in 2010, have jumped by a quarter in the past three years. This has led to a sharp increase in car sales, benefiting groups such as General Motors.