Will car loans be the canary for UK unsecured credit?

Yesterday the news hounds clustered around one piece of economic news as they caught up at least tangentially with something we have been looking at for some time. From the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

UK new car market falls for sixth consecutive month in September – down -9.3% to 426,170 units. First time the important September market has fallen in six years.

This will have had an impact in various areas as for example if you happened to be an unreliable boyfriend style central banker looking for a reason to cancel a proposed Bank Rate rise for the third time you might think you have struck gold. However we were expecting trouble because as I pointed out on the 22nd of August there had to be a reason why manufacturers were offering what they call incentives but we call price cuts?

Ford is the latest car company to launch an incentive for UK consumers to trade in cars over seven years old, by offering £2,000 off some new models.

Unlike schemes by BMW and Mercedes, which are only for diesels, Ford will also accept petrol cars.

That issue has been added to by the uncertainty over what is going to happen to older diesels of the sort I have.

Confusion surrounding air quality plans has inevitably led to a drop in consumer and business demand for diesel vehicles, which is undermining the roll out of the latest low emissions models and thwarting the ambitions of both industry and government to meet challenging CO2 targets.

Back in the day I was told my Astra was efficient and low emission but let us move on whilst noting that official credibility in this area is very low. Registrations had been falling for 6 months compared to the year before so that we now find we have stepped back in time to 2014.

Year-to-date, new car registrations have fallen -3.9%. But, overall, the market remains at a historically high levels with over 2 million vehicles hitting UK roads so far this year.

What does this mean?

This is more of a consumption issue for the UK economy than a production or manufacturing one. You see in the year to August some 78.4% of UK car production was for export so whilst there is a downwards impact it is more minor than might otherwise be assumed. Ironically a fall in UK demand affects producers abroad much more as this from the European body indicates.

The other way round, the EU represents 81% of the UK’s motor vehicle import volume, worth €44.7 billion.

For example Germany exported 809,853 cars to the UK in 2015 according to its trade body. Actually it may not be the best of times to be a German car manufacturer. From Automotive News Europe.

FRANKFURT — New-car registrations in Germany fell 3.3 percent in September as continued uncertainty over the future of diesel-powered cars hit demand.

The issue is complex as much manufacturing these days is of parts rather than complete cars. For example the UK engine industry has had a good 2017 but it is more domestic based so it will need more months like August if it is to carry on in such a manner.

Engine production rises 11.9% in August with more than 150,000 made for export and home markets. Overseas demand drives growth in the month, up nearly 20% compared with last year.

So we advance on knowing that there will be an effect on consumption and a likely smaller one on manufacturing although the latter is more unpredictable. What we will see is a reduction in imports which will boost GDP in an almost faustian fashion as the other factors lower it.

Car loans

So far there is nothing to particularly worry a central banker as after all it is not as if manufacturing or consumption are as important as banking is to them. However there is a catch and maybe the car manufacturers have been brighter than you might otherwise think. From the 18th of August.

That is partly because car manufacturers and their finance houses are increasingly stimulating private demand by offering cheaper (and new) forms of car finance. As amounts of consumer credit increase, so do the risks to the finance providers. Most car finance is provided by non-banks, which are not subject to prudential regulation in the way that banks are. These developments make the industry increasingly vulnerable  to shocks.

Now if we return to the real world the concept of prudential regulation is of course very different as after all it was not that long ago that so many banks needed large bailouts. But have the car manufacturers been very cunning in making themselves look like “the precious” as in the banks?

So much of the car market has gone this way that you could question what registration actually means? It used to mean a car was bought but these days is vastly more likely to mean it has been leased.

The FLA is the leading trade association for the motor finance sector in the UK. In 2016, members provided £41 billion of new finance to help households and businesses purchase cars. Over 86% of all private new car registrations in the UK were financed by FLA members.

Today we were updated on how this is going?

New figures released today by the Finance & Leasing Association (FLA) show that new business volumes in the point of sale (POS) consumer new car finance market fell by 8% in August, compared with the same month in 2016, while the value of new business was up by 2% over the same period.

So in nominal terms they are doing okay so far but the real numbers are down. The response has been the normal “extend and pretend” of the finance industry where trouble is on the horizon.

finance providers have responded by lengthening loan terms and increasing balloon payments rather than upping monthly repayments.

So as the Bank of England Financial Policy Committee Minutes observed earlier this week if we look back there has been quite a party.

Growth in UK consumer credit had slowed a little in recent months but remained rapid at 9.8% in the year to July 2017. This reflected strong growth of dealership car finance, credit card debt and other borrowing, such as personal loans. Growth of consumer credit remained well above the rate of growth in household disposable income.

So that is now slowing and likely will be accompanied by falling used car prices as time progresses. Whether the price cuts for new models have been picked up by the inflation numbers I am not sure as I wonder if the scrappage schemes are treated separately but the truth is prices are lower. Ironically this could easily be the sort of deflation scenario that central bankers are so afraid of as we note the risk of both falling volumes and prices. That is bad for debt which of course the car companies are carrying plenty of.

Term Funding Scheme

The problem is that the bubble in car finance has been fed by the easy credit policies of the Bank of England. Last August it gave all this another push with its Bank Rate cut and extra QE. But personally I think the real push came from the Funding for Lending Scheme of the summer of 2013 which is now the larger Term Funding Scheme. It went into the mortgage market and some washed into the car market and here we are. Unless we were all going to have 2 cars each there had to be a limit.

Comment

So we see issues in the real economy of a nudge lower to consumption and a smaller impact on production with ironically a fall in imports. However as we see lower prices and lower volumes the real issue is how the credit market which has built up copes. We are of course told it is “resilient” and that the Bank of England is “vigilant” and the latter may for once be true as after all it hardly wants word to get around that it was there 3/4 years ago with some matches and a can of petrol! How about QE for car production? Oh and a government scrappage scheme for diesels as well…….

 

 

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