Thanks largely to the U.S. Federal Reserve, Jeffrey Nelson was able to put up a shotgun as down payment on a car. Money was tight last year for the school-bus driver and neighborhood constable in Jasper, Alabama, a beaten-down town of 14,000 people. One car had already been repossessed. Medical bills were piling up.And still, though Nelson's credit history was an unhappy one, local car dealer Maloy Chrysler Dodge Jeep had no problem arranging a $10,294 loan from Wall Street-backed subprime lender Exeter Finance Corp so Nelson and his wife could buy a charcoal gray 2007 Suzuki Grand Vitara. All the Nelsons had to do was cover the $1,000 down payment. For most of that amount, Maloy accepted Jeffrey's 12-gauge Mossberg & Sons shotgun, valued at about $700 online.
In the ensuing months, Nelson and his wife divorced, he moved into a mobile home, and, unable to cover mounting debts, he filed for personal bankruptcy. His ex-wife, who assumed responsibility for the $324-a-month car payment, said she will probably file for bankruptcy in a couple of months. When they got the Exeter loan, Jeffrey, 44 years old, was happy "someone took a chance on us." Now, he sees it as a contributor to his financial downfall. "Was it feasible? No," he said.
The Maloy dealership wouldn't discuss the loan. "I got nothing to say to you," an employee said.
At car dealers across the U.S., loans to subprime borrowers like Nelson are surging: up 18 percent in 2012 from a year earlier, to 6.6 million borrowers, according to credit-reporting agency Equifax Inc. And as a Reuters review of court records shows, subprime auto lenders are showing up in a lot of personal bankruptcy filings, too. It's the Federal Reserve that's made it all possible.
MONEY, MONEY EVERYWHERE
In its efforts to jumpstart the economy, the U.S. central bank has undertaken since November 2008 three rounds of bond-buying and cut short-term interest rates effectively to zero. The purchases of mostly Treasury and mortgage securities, known as quantitative easing and nicknamed QE1, QE2 and QE3, have injected trillions of dollars into the financial system.
The Fed isn't alone. Central banks from Tokyo to Frankfurt to London are running their printing presses overtime. The heavily indebted advanced economies are trying to reflate their way out of the prolonged bout of crisis and recession that crystallized with the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc in 2008. That crisis, of course, followed a nearly decade-long cycle of easy money and exotic financial products that itself began with the collapse of the tech-mania bubble of the late 1990s.
The Fed's program, while aimed at bolstering the U.S. housing and labor markets, has also steered billions of dollars into riskier, more speculative corners of the economy. That's because, with low interest rates pinching yields on their traditional investments, insurance companies, hedge funds and other institutional investors hunger for riskier, higher-yielding securities - bonds backed by subprime auto loans, for instance.
Lenders like Exeter have rushed to meet that demand. Backed by Wall Street banks and big private-equity firms, they have been selling ever-greater amounts of subprime auto loans in the form of relatively high-yield securities and using the proceeds to fund even more lending to more subprime borrowers.
Expansion of the subprime auto business was chronicled in a 2011 Los Angeles Times series. Since then, growth has continued apace. Consider that in 2012, lenders sold $18.5 billion in securities backed by subprime auto loans, compared with $11.75 billion in 2011, according to ratings firm Standard & Poor's. The pace has continued so far this year, with $5.7 billion of the securities issued, compared with $4.4 billion for the same period last year, according to Deutsche Bank AG. On Monday alone, three deals totaling $1.6 billion of subprime auto securities were announced by Wall Street banks.
To make up for the risk of taking on increasing numbers of high-risk borrowers, subprime auto lenders charge annual interest rates that can top 20 percent.
The Exeter loan Nelson and his wife got, for example, carried a 21.95-percent rate. Exeter, which is majority-owned by private-equity giant Blackstone Group, assumes that one in four borrowers will default on their loan, according to an Exeter investor pitch book reviewed by Reuters.
"Exeter works with auto dealers throughout the country to help consumers who do not qualify for prime financing," a company spokeswoman said. "Exeter offers conventional financing with affordable payments tailored to each customer's individual circumstances." A Blackstone spokesman declined to comment.
Critics of the Fed say the growth in subprime auto lending is just one of several mini-bubbles the bond-buying program has created across a range of assets – junk bonds, subprime mortgage securities, and others. The yield chase delivered big windfalls to some Wall Street firms and hedge funds holding securities that soared in value. But so much money has flowed into these assets, the critics say, that the markets for some are beginning to resemble the housing boom in the run up to the financial crisis.
"It's the same sort of thing we saw in 2007," said William White, a former economist at the Bank for International Settlements. "People get driven to do riskier and riskier things."
White is among the growing number of economists coming round to the view of Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Richard Fisher, a non-voting member of the central bank's policy-making panel and a longtime critic of quantitative easing. "We are sailing deeper into uncharted waters," Fisher said in a speech six days after the Fed's September 13 announcement of QE3. "Why would the Fed provision to shovel billions in additional liquidity into the economy's boiler when so much is presently lying fallow?"
A bust in the subprime auto market wouldn't have consequences nearly as devastating for lenders, investors or the broader economy as the housing bust did. Securities underpinned by subprime auto loans, estimated at about $80 billion between 2006 and 2012, are a fraction of the $1.6 trillion in mortgage-backed products Wall Street created between 2006 and 2009, according to S&P data and the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, created by the U.S. government to analyze the financial crisis.