Stephen Foley: Car loans could steer US to a new debt bubble

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The Independent Online

US Outlook: There's a hair salon in Westchester, the well-heeled suburb of New York, that is frequented by many of the female stars of Wall Street.

Just the robustly remunerated clientele, in fact, that might want a chunking great vehicle like a Land Rover at a price tag starting well above $40,000 (£25,5000). Which is why the local dealer stationed one of said vehicles outside the salon recently in an attempt to lure buyers.

Except that the one person who signed up to buy was not anyone from a bank or an investment firm. It was the salon's hairdresser.

Such is the sudden glut of financing for auto loans, that cheap financing for huge consumer purchases is once again available to those of modest means, and anecdotes like these abound. Call it Subprime Pt. II.

Lending standards have been loosened by banks this year. The reason: a classic "tail wags dog" situation. There is still no private market mortgage-backed securities of the kind that triggered the 2007-09 financial meltdown, but investors are gobbling up securities backed by car loans. That means our hairdresser's loan will be packaged up and sold on.

Google has moved more than $1bn of that into securities backed by car loans. Interest on those is marginally higher than it can get on government bonds and other super-safe assets. The search engine giant is by no means alone in making that bet.

The Federal Reserve has drained the market of US Treasuries, forcing investors to look for something else to do with their money, namely putting it into the real economy.

Car makers are laughing; the question is whether there is a new debt bubble in the making.