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Why a Leap in Big-Money Auto Loans Isn't Cause for Worry

NEW YORK (TheStreet) — The New York Federal Reserve shows that household debt is "essentially flat," dropping by $18 billion in the past quarter to 8.2% below a peak in the third quarter of 2008. Most household debt categories are down (including mortgage debt) or up only slightly (including student loans and credit cards).

Auto loans, though, are at an eight-year high — up $30 billion on a quarter-to-quarter basis and by $91 billion on a yearly basis, with total outstanding auto loan debt at $905 billion.

"A slight decline in real estate related balances, consistent with broader housing market developments, contributed to a flat quarter for total outstanding household debt," said Donghoon Lee, senior economist at the New York Fed. "Meanwhile, we observe continued strength in the auto loan market with the largest volume of originations since 2006."

The Federal Reserve numbers are big and rising fast, but nobody seems to be alarmed enough to utter the phrase "bubble."

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First of all, auto loan delinquency rates are fairly flat (up 3.3% for the quarter) compared with delinquency rates for student loans (up 11%) and credit cards (up 8.5%). That suggests the vast majority of auto loan consumers are having no trouble paying their bills.

But the trend bears watching, Fed officials say, as auto loan volumes haven risen for 13 straight quarters. Especially in the spotlight are so-called subprime auto loans extended to consumers with low credit scores (a 620 FICO score is a common cutoff for sub-prime loans.)

The New York Fed reports that subprime auto loans make up 23% of the total, lower than the 30% levels in subprime auto loan originations seen in the run-up to the Great Recession in 2008 but rising nonetheless. A closer look at the Fed figures shows that the dollar value of auto loans made to consumers with credit scores lower than 660 has roughly doubled in the past five years, while loan originations to mortgage, credit card and student loan borrowers grew by only 50%.

One additional fact on auto loans from the New York Fed: Loan rates are rising not because of the number of auto loans taken by Americans but because the loans are bigger. That could mean more people are "buying up" to more expensive cars with glitzy features, a sign borrowers are confident their jobs are secure and they can pay the loan back.