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GM ads to tell buyers they can still get loans

/ Source: The Associated Press

With October auto sales expected to fall short of September’s 15-year low, General Motors Corp. is launching a campaign this week to reach people who have stopped looking for cars out of fear that they can’t get a loan.

Many banks and finance companies, including GM’s own GMAC Financial Services, have tightened credit standards because they can’t borrow money to lend, or they’re reluctant to lend and risk defaults. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t get a car loan if you want to get a car loan,” GM spokesman John McDonald said. “We just want consumers to know that you have options that you may not be aware of.”

GM will promote its financing options with radio, newspaper and digital advertising from Friday through Nov. 3. The program, called “Financing that Fits,” will publicize a 6-year-old computer database that lets dealers locate banks, credit unions and other lenders willing to make loans based on a particular buyer’s credit information.

GMAC said Monday it would only make auto loans to people with credit scores of 700 or above. That, coupled with numerous news stories about people getting turned down for car loans, has kept customers away from showrooms, according to industry analysts.

Several analysts are projecting October U.S. sales to be lower than in September, when automakers sold fewer than 1 million vehicles for the first time in 15 years. Some dealers have reported losing 20 percent of their sales as buyers get turned down for loans after agreeing to purchase vehicles.

“I think the industry has been so paralyzed by the mistaken impression by the public that they can’t get an auto loan that they have to go to pretty drastic measures to counter that,” said Jack Nerad, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

GM, analysts say, has to fight the overall impression that there’s no credit, plus tighter credit standards from GMAC. GM sold 51 percent of GMAC to Cerberus Capital Management LP in 2006 but still owns the rest.

“They can’t really rely on GMAC any more,” said Rebecca Lindland, an auto industry analyst with the consulting company Global Insight. “That’s where the dealer has to be able to step up and get local financing, using their local contacts.”

GMAC appears to be abandoning dealers and getting out of the auto loan business altogether, said John Clark, president of Avenue Chevrolet in Batavia, Ill., a Chicago suburb.

“In the past, GMAC was there rain or shine. As of now, I don’t feel that way. I feel that they may not be around because they can’t borrow,” he said.

Clark said he’s upset that GMAC strayed from auto loans into mortgages that have defaulted, leading to its current financial problems.

GMAC spokeswoman Gina Proia said the auto loan changes it has made “are related to the current market environment, which has reduced access to funds and increased the cost of funds.”

GMAC as well as the “captive” finance arms of Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC, face major hurdles because of the credit market downturn, and those problems are unlikely to end this year, according to a report issued Wednesday by the Standard & Poor’s ratings service.

The finance arms have limited funding options, the market for loans bundled and resold as securities is frozen, loan losses are rising, and used vehicle values are declining, restricting their ability to support their parent companies’ sales, Standard & Poor’s credit analyst Ernie Napier wrote in a note to investors.

“As worries about an economic slowdown rise, captives are tightening their underwriting standards, building and preserving liquidity, adjusting contracted residual values on returned vehicles to ensure profitable resales, and lowering overhead costs,” Napier wrote.

Ford took the unusual step of sending a letter to dealers Wednesday reassuring them that its credit arm, Ford Motor Credit Co., will keep lending and hasn’t raised requirements to qualify for a loan.

“Many companies providing automotive lending have recently decided to exit this market or reduce their exposure by tightening their purchase policies,” Ford said in the letter. “These actions by others may be unnerving, but Ford Credit is here for you.”

Clark said he’s happy GM is publicizing the computer database but said dealers have been helping buyers check multiple financing sources for years.

He’s hoping the campaign will bring more customers, but said his business is off 60 to 70 percent from September, which wasn’t a stellar month for him.

Clark said he’s been able to get financing for people with lower credit scores, around 630, if they have a good work history. Those below that have more difficulty or can’t get loans, he said.

“Money is out there to lend if you have very good credit, and in some cases if you don’t have ideal credit,” Lindland said. “It’s trying to find those places that you can still get money from that will still lend to you, and that’s the difficult part.”

Those with lower credit scores have always had to pay higher interest rates, and that hasn’t changed, Lindland said. The median FICO score is 720 on a scale that ranges from 300 to 850, according to Fair Isaac Corp.

GM isn’t the only automaker trying to publicize that loans are available. Ford Motor Co. has said its lending arm is still making loans and leases, and Toyota Motor Corp.’s finance arm is offering zero percent loans on most of its model lineup.

GM also has zero percent financing available on some 2008 models, McDonald said, but it’s also offering $6,000 cash back on all remaining 2008s.