HANOVER, Md. — The National Auto Finance (NAF) Association's newly released Nonprime Auto Financing Survey includes data that points to tightening lending guidelines and lengthening terms for U.S. auto loans. Conducted by Benchmark Consulting International, the survey found that FICO scores last year were up by an average of seven points for new-car originations and five points for used cars.

Jack Tracey, The NAF Association's executive director, said the data provided some indication that lenders were tightening lending guidelines at the close of 2007.

"It's not a dramatic jump, but if lenders are tightening, FICO scores would be improving," he said.

Finance sources, however, didn’t shy away from extending terms, as terms for new- and used-vehicle purchases increased 7 and 13 percent, respectively. Tracey speculated that the tightening of the credit markets in the second half of the year might have prevented terms from stretching out even further.

Loan-to-value (LTV) ratios were also down five basis points for new vehicles, another indicator of a tightening credit market. Additionally, contract volume went down 4 percent on new vehicles and up 14 percent for used. The study also revealed losses from repossession were up 11 percent last year, while contract volume for new vehicles was down 3 percent last year. For used vehicles, contract volume increased 11 percent.

A total of 26 finance sources were surveyed for the study, representing more than 3.1 million accounts worth $39.8 billion in loan originations.

"Nothing in this study flies in the face of the marketplace," Tracey said. "The (lenders) relying on securitization to produce funding continue to be very concerned. I believe over time, and I can’t predict how long it will take, the securitization market will come back ... it's been largely the result of the overreaction to the subprime mortgage debacle."