Just when I thought General Motors was on solid footing and heading in the right direction after shedding a large portion of its liabilities in bankruptcy, they seem to have forgotten what has happened over the last several years in the world of credit. One of the big reasons GM’s losses were compounded during the recession was because they funded a lot of subprime loans for their vehicles through GMAC. When those loans went sour, the losses not only negated the razor thin margins they had on the vehicle sales themselves, but resulted in a company that lost money on most of their cars. Hence, SUVs (with their fat profit margins) became a focus for the company, even in the face of rising gas prices, which aided their competitors in stealing market share.
Since GM has exited bankruptcy and the economy has stabilized management has stated publicly a desire to once again expand into the subprime auto finance market, but this time GMAC was hesitant (and understandably so). Undoubtedly, the result has been that GM could be selling more vehicles if they were willing to finance customers with bad credit who could not get loans elsewhere. This morning we learn that for $3.5 billion in cash GM is buying AmeriCredit (ACF), one of the larger subprime lenders in the country. They will use this new financing arm to get more cars into the hands of more people, many of whom could not get loans from third party lenders due to bad credit, no job, etc.
While I am sure those in the industry will praise this deal as a way for GM to maximize unit sales, we need not completely forget how cyclical economies work. Subprime lending pays off when the economy is improving but when the business cycle inevitably turns (as every economy does), the loans turn sour, the losses are crushing, and the cycle starts all over again. To me this highlights one of the core problems our domestic economy has developed over the last 10 or 20 years. We continue to follow the path of loose credit when things are going great and at the first sign of a downturn, credit standards increase dramatically. Once things stabilize, we hear that banks are slowly reducing their standards and loan volumes increase again.
For the life of me I cannot figure out why banks and specialty lenders refuse to maintain the same lending standards throughout the entire business cycle. The idea that lending money to people who are likely to default is good business sometimes and bad business other times baffles me. Sure, the few banks that always make smart loans, despite the economic backdrop, make a little less profit during boom times, but they also weather the recessions quite well in return for such prudence.
This kind of cyclical lending activity from the likes of GM (and most others) only contributes to the boom and bust economy the United States has seen become even more pronounced over the last decade. Fortunately, GM is set to go public via an IPO sometime in the next 12 months, at which time the U.S. taxpayer can shed its majority ownership in GM and therefore no longer be in the subprime lending business.
Here is a 15-year chart of AmeriCredit’s stock price which puts into graphical form the cyclicality I mentioned above.
Full Disclosure: No position in AmeriCredit at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time.