Car leases lose favor
Leasing game burns banks
The world of car buying has changed. Have your personal finances kept pace?
Just a few years ago, banks and automakers flooded drivers with lease deals so good it almost didn't make sense to tie up your money to purchase a car, especially when it could be earning fatter returns in the go-go stock market.
Today, banks that got burned in the leasing game during the heyday are getting out of the business, and automakers are pushing zero- and low-rate financing deals instead of leases.
The upshot: Even the savviest consumers are turning away from leasing.
Sue Stevens, director of financial planning for Morningstar Inc., bought a Toyota Highlander in August with a home-equity line of credit, figuring the deductible interest would be a better bet for her than zero-financing costs.
Michael Nemeroff, a Chicago attorney who helps top executives negotiate multimillion-dollar salary packages, paid cash for his 2000 Land Rover, even though lease deals were plentiful then.
And Dave Bufka, senior vice president at AAA Chicago Motor Club, has switched from leasing cars to buying. He financed his latest purchase, a 2001 Mercury Mountaineer.
"I'm not seeing those good deals on leasing anymore," Bufka said, though he still leases trucks for the motor club. Commercial leasing remains attractive, he said, but dealers are requiring huge down payments on leases.
Evidence of a shift isn't just anecdotal.
Consumers leased just 15 percent of all vehicles sold in October, down from more than 25 percent in 1999, according to Power Information Network, a unit of J.D. Power and Associates.
And in a customer satisfaction survey released in September, lease customers were less satisfied than those taking loans to finance their new cars, Power found.
Banks steer clear
Leasing is complicated by residual-value projections, or estimates of what the cars will be worth at the end of their leases, a figure that helps determine how attractive a consumer's monthly lease rate will be. The higher the residual value, the lower -- and more competitive -- the monthly payment.
"The lessors have absorbed substantial losses on their off-lease vehicles," said David McKay, J.D. Power's senior director of auto finance, in the September report. "This has led to a number of banks and independent finance companies (leaving) the auto-lease market. The firms that have remained in the leasing market are generally pricing the vehicle residuals substantially lower than they did in the past, which usually increases the monthly lease payments and makes leases less attractive to consumers."
Bank One Corp. and Bank of America have been among the players leading the exodus.
By the end of 2003, Bank One's auto-leasing portfolio will be down to about $2.5 billion, from a peak of $11 billion a few years ago. Today it stands at $4.4 billion.
The bank also has been trimming its exposure to consumer auto loans. Chief Executive Jamie Dimon has said the business is inherently a bad deal for banks because it is the automakers who ultimately control the purse strings and can alter production and their own finance deals to sway consumers far more than banks can.
More wiggle room
Harris Bank officials see things differently.
The Chicago-based unit of BMO Financial Group, formerly known as Bank of Montreal, does no car leasing but has been adding to its car-loan business while others consolidate.
By year's end, auto-loan volume outstanding will exceed $2 billion, accounting for 160,000 loans, an increase over last year of 35 percent, said Timothy Crane, executive vice president for consumer lending at Harris. Five years ago, the bank did about $500 million in auto loans.
The bank doesn't break out profit figures, but Crane confirmed that Harris is in the ballpark of the 18 percent to 22 percent return on equity that most successful auto-loan providers are getting.
"We've seen some consolidation in lenders, but we see this as an area of strength," Crane said, pointing to cross-selling opportunities as the bank seeks to market other services to its auto-loan customers.
What does all this mean for car buyers?
Fewer players, and likely fewer sweet deals, in the leasing market, to be sure. But also more wiggle room to negotiate a deal as the slow economy grinds on.
"Leasing for us is only around 6 percent today," said Richard Severinsen, new-car sales manager for Oakbrook Toyota in Westmont, Ill. "People don't realize how good leasing was just a few years ago."