U.S. Auto Loan Market Upshifts at Year-End

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Americans have apparently avoided the Mayan apocalypse, but they're sure spending money on new cars and trucks like the world is about to end.

Figures from TrueCar.com say the estimated annualized rate of total auto sales purchases for 2012 is 15.2 million, light years ahead of the 10.9 million the U.S. auto market saw in 2009.

But that was at the height of the recession, and auto industry bailout or not, Americans largely bailed out of buying new vehicles, hoping for better days ahead.

Those days may finally be here, as new car and truck purchases are trending significantly higher. Besides the improving economy, one reason could be "old car fatigue," as the average age of an American motor vehicle in 2011 was 11.1 years-old, a record high according to Polk, a Southfield, Mich.-based auto data provider.

There's more good news.

U.S. auto consumers seem to have a good grip on their auto loan debt. Chicago-based Transunion reports data showing auto loan delinquencies are at "near record-low levels" and will be throughout next year. Right now, the number of U.S. delinquent auto loan borrowers is at its lowest level since 2008.

On the flip side, consumer auto loans are growing, Transunion reports, with the average debt per borrower rising to $14,133 from $13,689 from now until the end of next year.

The number of "non-prime borrowers" -- auto loan consumers with credit scores below 700 -- is also climbing, suggesting banks and auto loan providers are more amenable to granting new car loans to a wider pool of borrowers.

Again, that's great news for the U.S. economy.

For the past four years, the Federal Reserve has targeted a looser credit environment as a major driver of economic growth. Nobody's saying the economy is completely out of the woods, but lower-credit consumers earning new auto loans is a sign things could be getting better on the personal financial front.

"It's a real sign that the automobile market is on solid footing that even with more non-prime consumers carrying auto loan balances, we've continued to maintain a low national auto loan delinquency rate," says Peter Turek, a vice president for financial services at TransUnion. "We believe this is happening partly because consumers are now valuing their auto loans even more than their credit card and mortgage loans; also, lenders and dealers are putting even more emphasis on placing buyers in vehicles and loans that best fit their financial situation."

In the end, the data point to a single driver, TransUnion says -- a strengthening economy.

"The national auto loan delinquency rate should stay relatively low throughout 2013 as the economy continues to improve," Turek says. "Macroeconomic factors such as the improving unemployment rate, median household income and housing prices are some of the primary drivers that lead us to a favorable forecast."

Americans just aren't accustomed to seeing or hearing the words "favorable forecast" in describing portions of the U.S. economy.

As Christmas approaches, that may the best gift U.S. consumers might see under the tree this year.