A record 7 million Americans are 90 days or more behind on their auto loan payments, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported Tuesday, even more than during the wake of the financial crisis era.
Economists warn this is a red flag. Despite the strong economy and low unemployment rate, many Americans are struggling to pay their bills.
‘‘The substantial and growing number of distressed borrowers suggests that not all Americans have benefited from the strong labor market,’’ economists at the New York Fed wrote in a blog post.
A car loan is typically the first payment people make because a vehicle is critical to getting to work, and someone can live in a car if all else fails. When car loan delinquencies rise, it is a sign of significant duress among low-income and working-class Americans.
‘‘Your car loan is your No. 1 priority in terms of payment,’’ said Michael Taiano, a senior director at Fitch Ratings. ‘‘If you don’t have a car, you can’t get back and forth to work in a lot of areas of the country. A car is usually a higher priority payment than a home mortgage or rent.’’
People who are three months or more behind on their payments often lose their car, making it even more difficult to get to work, the doctor’s office, or other critical places.
The New York Fed said there were over a million more ‘‘troubled borrowers’’ at the end of 2018 than there were in 2010, when unemployment hit 10 percent and the auto loan delinquency rate peaked. Today, unemployment is 4 percent, and many more Americans have jobs, yet a significant number of people cannot pay their car loan.
Most of the people who are behind on their bills have low credit scores and are under age 30, suggesting young people are having a difficult time paying for their cars and their student loans at the same time.
Auto loans surged in the past several years as car sales kept growing year after year, hitting a record high in 2016 of 17.5 million vehicles sold in the United States. Overall, many borrowers have strong credit scores and repay their loans, but the auto industry has suffered from high defaults among so-called ‘‘subprime’’ borrowers with credit scores under 620 on an 800-point scale.
The share of auto loan borrowers who were three months behind on their payments peaked at 5.3 percent in late 2010. The share is slightly lower now — 4.5 percent — because the total number of borrowers has risen so much in the past several years. Still, economists are concerned the rate has been climbing steadily since 2016 even though unemployment fell to its lowest level in almost half a century and the number of people impacted is far greater now.