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Does Dell have a subprime lending problem?

The computer maker is assessing its relationship with struggling lender CIT Group, which was stung by the same financial mess that's hammered the biggest names in banking.

Offering financing services to customers is nothing new for big computer hardware makers. Unfortunately, running into trouble because of those vendor financing programs is almost as common.

Tucked into a piece on Apple and patents on Barron's Online is an interesting tidbit about Dell. No, Dell hasn't been handing out loans for houses in suburban Las Vegas or some other distressed real estate market. This appears to be an indirect deal. It seems the Texas computer maker, thanks to its partnership with troubled lender CIT Group, could surprisingly find itself stung by the subprime loan mess. At one time, CIT owned a 30 percent stake in Dell Financial Services, which was founded about 11 years ago to provide leasing programs to small businesses. Dell has been unwinding the relationship with CIT for nearly two years and bought back the last percentage in the fourth quarter of 2007.

Dell

How much of a problem CIT's issues could pose to Dell is hard to say. Here's where the numbers get tricky: At the end of the fourth quarter, Dell had $2.1 billion in financing receivables on its balance sheet. Of that, $450 million of customer receivables had been facilitated through CIT, according to a Dell spokesman. At the same time, Dell had $10 billion in cash. Barron's reported about 9 percent of Dell's 2008 sales have been generated through the financial services arm, but the CIT link for that 9 percent should be less than in the past years.

Does that mean Dell won't see any of that $450 million if CIT, which has been hammered by defaults on subprime loans (among other issues), should continue to falter? No, but there's at least some exposure there. It could be another aggravation for Dell, but the fallout would pale in comparison to other problems the computer maker has faced in recent years, such as exploding laptop computers. The Dell spokesman said the company is assessing the CIT situation (the two companies still partner) but that it hasn't made a definitive decision what to do about it.

CIT is facing bleak prospects. Some Wall Street analysts are calling for the company to sell itself to a bigger financing outfit, like General Electric's commercial lending arm. A Monday Wall Street Journal article explains the predicament for the once high-flying outfit.

So why do computer companies do vendor financing if there's so much risk? Because they have to, particularly if they're looking to sell equipment to small businesses. But loaning money to customers comes with risk: It can be a temptation for some executives to fudge the books. Also, if customers go under or the financing goes awry, the equipment maker can end up holding the bag.

Could Dell end up holding the bag to the tune of $450 million? Not likely, and it's difficult to put a dollar figure on the CIT problem at the moment. But it's one more headache Michael Dell & Co. would probably be happy to avoid.

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