RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Subprime lending is back. We're not talking about homes this time. Automakers and banks have been extending more credit to those with less than perfect credit scores, and that has some worried about a subprime car bubble. Here's NPR's Sonari Glinton.
SONARI GLINTON, BYLINE: As much as I love late-night talk shows, I know that as a reporter, whenever a late-night comedian sets his or her sights on my beat - cars and the economy - I'm going to have a lot of explaining to do. Here's John Oliver talking about car loans on HBO's "Last Week Tonight." Remember, it's HBO, so there will be bleeps.
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JOHN OLIVER: And this feeding frenzy over subprime customers now includes big lenders, like Santander and GM Financial. They have both expanded their subprime auto financing. And you might be wondering, why the [expletive] is everyone in such a hurry to lend money to people with bad credit? I mean, sure...
GLINTON: To help answer Mr. Oliver's question, we turn to...
LACEY PLACHE: OK, hi. I'm Lacey Plache, chief economist at edmunds.com.
GLINTON: Chief economist - is that a promotion?
PLACHE: No, I've always been the chief economist.
GLINTON: Economist, not comedian, Plache says. The reason why the industry is looking to sell cars to people with less than stellar credit is, well, because jobs.
PLACHE: There are definite benefits to having access to credit, especially for an automobile because that really gives people a lot more options in terms of work.
GLINTON: For many millions of Americans, the only way to get to work is to drive yourself there. Plache says during the economic collapse, access to credit dried up, and that hurt people with poor credit scores. Poor credit means below 650. Now, you could easily fall into that category if you miss a few credit card payments. As the banks and the car companies extend credit to a wider range of people, they're going to take on more risk.
PLACHE: You are going to see higher delinquency rates, higher defaults than you did during the days where the auto lenders were really focusing the majority of their efforts on super-prime and prime. And, you know, I think there's some love of drama, right? Some people like to worry, and, you know, this is something to point to.
GLINTON: Now, comparisons between the credit market for cars and real estate are difficult because the car market is one-tenth as large.
ALEC GUTIERREZ: I wouldn't say that the sky is falling, but I think it is fair to say that there has been an expansion in subprime lending overall. And that's true of both new car purchases, used car purchases and leasing.
GLINTON: Alec Gutierrez is senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book. He points out that the risks for lenders are lower for autos than for real estate. And cars are easier to repossess, and that's one reason consumers often pay their car loan first. It's also a way for consumers to establish credit.
GUTIERREZ: You still have a lot of people that are rebuilding credit that have gone through foreclosures and, thus, have poor credit. These people still need a way to get to work, to get around town. Their vehicles - they age. They get old. They need to be replaced. And thus, you've got this continuous stream of subprime borrowers just looking for a way to get into a car.
GLINTON: Gutierrez says subprime auto lending boomed before the financial crisis, then plummeted with the financial collapse and is now beginning to get back to normal. He says the industry isn't taking great risks, but some borrowers will be hurt.
GUTIERREZ: It's devastating at a personal level when you can't make those payments. You lose your car. You can't go to work. You can't pay the bills. But in terms of it being a systemic risk to the entire auto industry or the economy as a whole, it just doesn't carry the same sort of weight and magnitude as the mortgage industry did, especially the way it was structured back in 2008.
GLINTON: Gutierrez says buyers need to shop around - go directly to the banks, credit unions before you go to the dealership. And if you're in the car market, you always have options, even if your credit has taken a hit. Sonari Glinton, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF KORESMA'S, "THE THEORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.