America's Truck Love Means Long-Term Auto Loans Are Here to Stay

(Bloomberg) -- Americans’ love of pricey pickups and sport utility vehicles is stretching their wallets, leading lenders to bend over backward to keep monthly payments affordable.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV’s Ram truck brand had the longest average loan terms in the industry last year, at 73 months, according to consumer credit tracker Experian. The automaker’s Jeep and Fiat lines also placed among the top five, along with Mitsubishi and General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet.

America's Truck Love Means Long-Term Auto Loans Are Here to Stay

More than two-thirds of U.S. auto sales are now light trucks, which includes pickups and SUVs, and new-fangled tech inside them has helped drive prices to record highs of more than $35,000. While this has helped automakers mint money even as total industry sales slip, it also means the debt burden on consumers is getting heavier. Lenders are stretching out loan terms to keep monthly payments manageable and help dealers close sales.

America's Truck Love Means Long-Term Auto Loans Are Here to Stay

“I don’t think we’re going to see any reduction in terms until we see changes in pricing or what consumers are buying,” said Melinda Zabritski, a senior director at Experian. “If anything, we’re starting to see more lenders who would previously do a 72- or 75- move into the 84-month loan category.”

One factor contributing to Fiat Chrysler’s long loan terms is that it lacks a wholly owned U.S. finance unit, Zabritski said. Santander Consumer USA Holdings Inc., which operates Chrysler Capital, financed a minority of the automaker’s retail sales last year. Much of the remainder was handled by banks and credit unions that tend to offer longer loan terms, she said.

Longer terms increase the risk that lenders could get stuck with bigger losses on defaults. And consumers may later be squeezed out of the new-vehicle market if they owe more than their car is worth, Zabritski said.

“If they keep pushing the term out, they will be upside down,” she said, referring to consumers owing more on their vehicle than what it’s worth. “They may have to keep the car a little bit longer, or they have to come up with more cash.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.