The collapse of our nation's housing market in the summer of 2008 didn't come from out of the blue. Though it surely did seem that way for many, those who were plugged in saw warning signs aplenty before all hell broke loose. One critical red flag: There were people getting home mortgages who didn't make even a single payment on their loan. Not one. Separately, but relatedly, there were the millions of others who had fallen badly behind on their home mortgages.
For those who were looking, the red flags weren't merely waving, but were effectively screaming, sending off a real alarm of what was just around the corner. And when it came, the economic collapse was unlike anything folks who hadn't been alive during the Great Depression had ever before known.
Now comes news that trouble has been brewing in the auto loan market.
A new report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found fully 7 million people had fallen 90 days or more behind on their car payments. This, too, should be considered a real red flag.
The report from the New York Fed did contain both good news and bad news. Some of the good news: Mortgage delinquencies are way, way down. In the fourth quarter of 2018, just a smidge more than 1 percent of mortgage-holders were 90 days or more behind on payments. Compare that to the first quarter of 2010, when that rate had spiked to nearly 9 percent.
For those who prefer the sunny side of the street, there's good news on auto loans, too. Car sales went up and up and up after the end of the Great Recession, with auto-buyers leaving dealerships with a record $584 billion in car loans last year. And while the delinquency rate does lie below its 2010 peak, in large part that's because the total number of new loans has so steadily increased. In real numbers, the 7 million who are at least 90 days overdue is an all-time record.
Also, a higher percentage of those with lower credit scores have been falling behind on their loans, with the delinquency rate for so-called subprime borrowers — those with a credit score below 620 — rising past 8 percent in the final quarter of last year.
Think this isn't a red flag? Consider this: The unemployment rate stands at just 4 percent, with more job openings now than ever before. Wages are up. And millions aren't able to make the payments on their auto loans. How might things look if the economy were to hit a speed bump?
As we all learned back in 2008, signs such as the ones contained in Tuesday's report from the New York Fed are ignored at our peril.
-- The Springfield (Mass.) Republican