BANDON, Ore. — The long decline in new-car loan approval rates may well have bottomed out, said CNW Market Research's December newsletter.

If the first half of December was an indication of the full month, December could be the third consecutive monthly increase in approval rates, wrote the Bandon, Ore.-based market research firm.

In the opening half of December, 81 percent of prime, 76 percent of near prime and 16 percent of subprime new-vehicle loan contracts were approved. While still far from the free-for-the-taking loans of a few years ago, it bodes well for a slow but incremental return of the auto market.

“As pointed out in last month’s issue, however, looser credit isn’t necessarily going to impact the auto industry quickly, nor do the higher approval rates signal a surge in loans for financed new vehicles,” wrote CNW’s Art Spinella. “There remains the issue of home equity lines of credit, which are slowly being rebuilt.

“What the three-month trend does show, however, is that the likelihood of a fairly decent increase in ‘09 sales over ‘08 is possible.”