That's partly because captives, including Toyota Motor Credit Corp., are more active in incentives, and partly because big auto lenders such as GMAC Financial Services are rebounding from recent market-share lows.
Credit unions are still ahead of where they were two years ago, and analysts said that in the long run credit unions would continue to be a greater presence in auto lending than they were before the 2008-2009 credit crisis.
"Through the last year we saw a lot more credit union participation," said Mark O'Neil, chairman and CEO of DealerTrack Inc. in Lake Success, N.Y.
O'Neil said in a recent interview that credit unions account for roughly 60 percent of the 850 lenders DealerTrack has signed up for its network. "They continue to come on in large numbers," he said. DealerTrack also has about 17,000 U.S. dealers signed up for its credit application network and other online tools.
Down but not outAccording to Experian Automotive, credit union share of new-vehicle loans in January and February 2010 fell to 27 percent, from 37 percent in the year-ago period. However, that's ahead of the 24 percent share they had two years ago.
GMAC alone accounts for much of the change, as it is bouncing back from a year ago. GMAC said its share of GM's U.S. retail business was 30.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009, up from only 4.7 percent in the year-ago quarter. GMAC stuck with wholesale financing for its dealers through the credit crisis, but when it had funding problems of its own, GMAC cut way back on retail loans, and especially leases.
GMAC also had a 25.5 percent share of Chrysler retail in the fourth quarter of 2009, up from 13.3 percent in the third quarter, and none in the year-ago quarter. GMAC became Chrysler's preferred lender in April 2009.
Join the clubCredit unions gained share last year partly because banks and captives were cutting back, but also because it's easier than ever to join a credit union.
A spokesman for the Credit Union National Association said that about 25 percent of the nation's credit unions now have what's called a "community charter." That means you only have to live in a certain geographic area to join, as opposed to a more traditional "field of membership," which usually meant working in a certain occupation or for a certain employer.
That has been a gradual change rather than the result of any sudden nationwide change in credit union rules and regulations, said Chris Johnson, CUNA's Washington-based vice president of state governmental affairs. CUNA also has offices in Madison, Wis.
The most important factor has been that credit unions had money to lend, when other competitors didn't, he said. "Credit unions emerged stronger from the credit crisis in 2008, and they had more money available," Johnson said. "It was easy to see evidence that credit unions were seeking to increase their auto business."