Ally’s diversification efforts starting to pay off

Ally Financial, which was spun off from General Motors in 2006, has long wanted to reduce its heavy reliance on the auto finance business.

The Detroit-based company hit some bumps along the way. In 2019, Ally ended a credit card partnership with TD Bank. Last summer, its $2.7 billion deal to buy a subprime card issuer was terminated amid the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Ally, which operates a digital-only bank with deposits of $137 billion, is starting to gain some traction in two fledgling lending segments — mortgages and unsecured consumer loans.

Last year, Ally originated $4.7 billion in home loans, which was up 74% from 2019. The mortgage unit, which seeks to appeal to home buyers who want an online borrowing experience, reported pretax income of $53 million in 2020, up from $40 million the previous year.

Meanwhile, the unsecured lending segment had full-year loan origination volume of $503 million, which was up 75% from 2019. While the business is not yet profitable, Chief Financial Officer Jennifer LaClair said that is largely because new accounting rules require lenders to reserve for losses over the life of a loan, which makes it harder to achieve profitability during a period of rapid growth.

Ally’s digital brokerage platform, a third prong of the firm’s diversification strategy, has also shown strong customer growth, though its bottom line has been hurt by the rise of free online trading.

In an interview Friday, LaClair attributed the rapid growth of new consumer products largely to Ally’s 11-year-old digital bank, which she said offers depositors a gateway to additional offerings. Existing depositors account for more than half of Ally’s new mortgage volumes, and the same pattern holds for its new brokerage account holders.

“Our new businesses are scaling because of existing customers,” LaClair said in remarks that followed the company’s fourth-quarter earnings report. “We’ve been able to do that very efficiently through the digital deposit platform, and to the extent we can leverage that as a gateway, we have an incredibly low cost of acquisition for these other products.”

To be sure, Ally remains heavily dependent on auto loans, which account for around 60% of the company’s $176 billion of assets. Last year, residential mortgages and unsecured consumer loans made up about 9% of the balance sheet.

LaClair said Friday that she sees a clear path for Ally to quadruple its unsecured consumer loans, to $2 billion a year. The business segment, known as Ally Lending, grew out of the company’s $190 million acquisition of Health Credit Services in 2019. It offers point-of-sale loans in partnership with health care providers, home improvement contractors and retailers. Loans for home improvement projects have gotten a boost from changes in consumer spending patterns during the pandemic.

The home loan business, known as Ally Home, grew out of a partnership with the digital mortgage firm Ally’s return to the mortgage business came several years after the demise of Residential Capital, a subprime mortgage unit of GMAC, as Ally was formerly known, which lost $9.2 billion between 2007 and 2009 and was later liquidated.

Still, it was the traditional auto lending business that drove profits in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Ally reported net income of $687 million, up 82% from a year earlier, thanks both to a smaller provision for credit losses and higher revenue. Ally has benefited from strong consumer demand for cars during the pandemic, which has propelled loan volumes and bolstered used-car prices, reducing the size of losses when loans go bad.


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