Subprime lending

In finance, subprime lending (also referred to as near-prime, subpar, non-prime, and second-chance lending) is the provision of loans to people who may have difficulty maintaining the repayment schedule.[1] Historically, subprime borrowers were defined as having FICO scores below 600, although this threshold has varied over time.[2]

These loans are characterized by higher interest rates, poor quality collateral, and less favorable terms in order to compensate for higher credit risk.[3] Many subprime loans were packaged into mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and ultimately defaulted, contributing to the financial crisis of 2007–2008.[4]

Defining subprime risk

The term subprime refers to the credit quality of particular borrowers, who have weakened credit histories and a greater risk of loan default than prime borrowers.[5] As people become economically active, records are created relating to their borrowing, earning and lending history. This is called a credit rating; although covered by privacy laws, the information is readily available to people with a need to know (in some countries, loan applications specifically allow the lender to access such records). Subprime borrowers have credit ratings that might include:

  • limited debt experience (so the lender's assessor simply does not know, and assumes the worst), or
  • no possession of property assets that could be used as security (for the lender to sell in case of default)
  • excessive debt (the known income of the individual or family is unlikely to be enough to pay living expenses + interest + repayment),
  • a history of late or sometimes missed payments so that the loan period had to be extended,
  • failures to pay debts completely (default debt), and
  • any legal judgments such as "orders to pay" or bankruptcy (sometimes known in Britain as county court judgments or CCJs).

Lenders' standards for determining risk categories may also consider the size of the proposed loan, and also take into account the way the loan and the repayment plan is structured, if it is a conventional repayment loan, a mortgage loan, an endowment mortgage, an interest-only loan, a standard repayment loan, an amortized loan, a credit card limit or some other arrangement. The originator is also taken into consideration. Because of this, it was possible for a loan to a borrower with "prime" characteristics (e.g. high credit score, low debt) to be classified as subprime.[6]

Proponents of subprime lending maintain that the practice extends credit to people who would otherwise not have access to the credit market. Professor Harvey S. Rosen of Princeton University explained, "The main thing that innovations in the mortgage market have done over the past 30 years is to let in the excluded: the young, the discriminated against, the people without a lot of money in the bank to use for a down payment."[7]