General Motors Fighting Uphill Battle with Double Edged Sword

Shortly after the U.S. government lent the Big Three $17.4 billion, we learned Monday that an additional $6 billion of taxpayer money is headed to GMAC, the large General Motors finance arm. Where will this money go? Well, GMAC said Tuesday that it will immediately resume automobile financing for “a broader spectrum of U.S. customers.” That is code for “we are going to lend money to people who probably should not be getting it right now.”

If you think this sounds awfully strange given the current economic situation, you would be right. GMAC got into trouble in the first place by giving out loans to sub-prime borrowers for not only car loans, but mortgages as well (Ditech is owned by GMAC, for example). To stem bad loans, earlier this year GMAC increased its minimum required credit score to 700. This compared to the median credit score nationally of 723, so more than half the country qualified even after lending standards were tightened considerably.

Not surprisingly, auto sales sank after the new minimums were implemented, but I think it is unreasonable to attribute all of that decline to the new credit standards. The economy is bad, people are cutting back, and unemployment is soaring, so there are simply fewer people who can afford to buy new cars, regardless of what their credit score is.

As car inventories build and GM’s losses mount, the only way to boost sales is to lend to less creditworthy borrowers. GMAC said Tuesday it will modify its credit criteria to include buyers with a credit score of 621 or higher.

This appears to be a slippery slope. Lending to borrowers with bad credit as a means to increase profits is exactly how we found ourselves in a sub-prime mortgage meltdown in the first place. With the economy worsening, this hardly seems like the time to loosen credit standards. Not only that, but doing so almost ensures that increased profits earned from higher car sales volumes will be offset by higher credit losses because GM funds the majority of its car sales through GMAC, its own financing division.

While I do not own GM stock, what is going on here should matter to all of us because taxpayer money is being used. We essentially just gave GMAC $6 billion which it is using to lend to borrowers with credit scores as much as 100 points lower than the national average. Such a plan can’t possibly increase the odds that the government gets its money back on these emergency loans. Since Uncle Sam will be first in line to collect its money, GM shareholders are likely to be left with very little unless the company sincerely changes its ways. As this week’s news is more of the same, I have no interest in going near GM stock.

Full Disclosure: No position in General Motors at the time of writing, but positions may change at any time

Update (12/31): Barry Ritholtz points out that GMAC doesn’t even know what a sub-prime borrower is.