Auto Race to the Bottom

This guest post was contributed by Raj Date, head of the Cambridge Winter Center for Financial Institutions Policy and a former McKinsey consultant, bank senior executive, and Wall Street managing director. For further information on the auto dealer exemption, see the recent study by the Cambridge Winter Center.

Over the past several months, Congress has debated ways to strengthen and rationalize consumer protection in financial services.  Central to that debate is the proposed creation of a new agency focused exclusively on this issue, the Consumer Financial Protection Agency (the “CFPA”).

Even among proponents, however, there are varying conceptions of the scope and function of the CFPA.  For example, the CFPA as envisioned by the House Financial Services Committee would exclude auto dealers from the CFPA’s coverage.  The Administration’s original proposal would have included them.  Starting this week, the Senate Banking Committee will have to wrestle with the same question.

They shouldn’t have to wrestle long:  Even by the low analytical standards applied to hastily arranged, crisis-driven corporate welfare initiatives, the exemption of auto dealers from the CFPA appears profoundly ill conceived.  Exempting auto dealers would simultaneously be bad for consumers, bad for industry stability, and bad for what remaining sense of free-market integrity we still have.

First, and most obviously, exempting auto dealers from the CFPA would be a big step in exactly the wrong direction on consumer protection.

One the central premises of the CFPA is that it would provide comprehensive rule-making — that is, regardless of what a firm chooses to call itself (bank, thrift, finance company, ILC, investment bank, broker — whatever), if it sells financial products, then it should be subject to the same rules of the road as every other competitor.  Absent the same rules applying to all players, the marketplace becomes a “race to the bottom”:  all participants migrate to the most permissive system of rules, and customer practices degrade to the lowest common denominator.  (And then one day you wake up, and everyone is marketing teaser-rate option-ARMs).

So by that logic, if auto dealers are selling loans, then they should be subject to the same rules as everyone else.

And auto dealers are certainly selling loans.

Dealers are not a niche part of some obscure and immaterial market; they are the single largest channel (with 79% market share) in the origination of auto loans and leases, a business that (at more than $850 billion in outstandings) is larger than the entire U.S. credit card industry.

Not only are dealers a giant part of auto lending, but auto lending is a giant part of dealer economics.  Over the past ten years, gross profit per new car has plummeted by a third.  That would seem catastrophic in what was, even a decade ago, the brutally thin-margin business of selling cars.  But dealers, somehow, still were profitable in 2008.  The main reason:  Over this same period, dealers were able to double their amount of higher-margin finance and insurance income.

Moreover, auto finance is demonstrably susceptible to unfair and deceptive practices, and those practices are demonstrably not held in check by private market forces alone.  Just like mortgage brokers during the bubble, auto dealers have the opportunity to mark up interest rates; they routinely and confusingly cross-subsidize finance pricing and vehicle pricing; they can and do add “garbage” fees and add-ons of questionable provenance and dubious value.  (Can I interest you in undercarriage coating?  How about paint protection?).

So auto dealers are in the business of selling loans — a lot of loans — and their business model is susceptible to abuse.  This is not a close call; they should be subject to the same rules as other players.

But this problem goes beyond consumer protection; it goes to the stability of the system.

The auto finance market consists of two basic distribution channels:  the dealer (or “indirect”) channel, which is generally funded by a handful of large national banks and Wall Street capital markets platforms; and the retail (or “direct”) channel, which generally consists of credit unions and community banks.  By artificially distorting the auto finance market in favor of the dealers’ distribution channel, the exemption encourages the primacy of Wall Street funding sources over traditional bank deposit funding.  As evidenced by the crisis, intentionally chasing businesses from traditional banks and credit unions into Wall Street funding models creates the real potential for disruptive volatility over time.

Finally, the exemption also offends even the most basic principles of regulatory fairness.  Free-market adherents should be dismayed by the notion of specially permissive regulatory treatment for some classes of politically powerful market participants.  We should not be stacking the deck in favor of the already-dominant players with the most dubious customer practices (auto dealers and the captive finance companies and Wall Street houses that fund them), and thereby discriminating against competitors with more transparent, customer-friendly business models (community banks and credit unions chief among them).

By Raj Date

7 responses to “Auto Race to the Bottom

  1. These are important points – thanks for posting this. Modern subprime lending got its start in auto finance, with companies like Franklin making high cost loans to borrowers with impaired credit as early as the late 1950s. While auto loans may not have the capacity to bring the financial system ot its knees (although there was a mini-meltdown in subprime auto loans in 1997, just ahead of the first subprime mortgage crisis), they have been a primary means of delivering harm to captive consumers. The idea that this market segment should be given safe harbor from consumer protection defies any logic beyond that of a pure power play on the part of dealer-lenders.

  2. “Absent the same rules applying to all players, the marketplace becomes a “race to the bottom”: all participants migrate to the most permissive system of rules, and customer practices degrade to the lowest common denominator.”

    I love it! “Transpacific Bank and Auto” ;)

    First, GMAC becomes a bank, now banks become GMACs.

    Any kind of exemption is absurd.

  3. I know the notion of exempting an upstanding, stable, solvent company like GMAC gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling.

    By artificially distorting the auto finance market in favor of the dealers’ distribution channel, the exemption encourages the primacy of Wall Street funding sources over traditional bank deposit funding. As evidenced by the crisis, intentionally chasing businesses from traditional banks and credit unions into Wall Street funding models creates the real potential for disruptive volatility over time.

    I guess that’s an example of why small banks weren’t whooping it up lobbying for new regulation, something which was extensively discussed at this site.

  4. Sometimes I think Option-ARM loans are the biggest scam of the last 50 years. If you consider how many people have had to return their cars to the dealership or give their house back to the bank over the years, my wild guess is it would almost outdo our losses on the most recent economic crisis. But it happens to low-income people and “ne’er-do-wells” so nobody bothers to tabulate the numbers. And often times the bank or dealership knows they will get the equity back with minimal damage and then do the same thing to the next sucker who walks along.

    Of course dealerships should be covered under the CFPA, but their Republican friends in Congress will help the dealerships continue the adjustable rates scamming. If not at the federal level they’ll work with state level legislators to get their way.

  5. Plebeianswillrevolt

    To now understand this gross abuse and to realize that it has been going on in America for so many years, really makes me disgusted at this country. What a facade we all lived under for so long, believing our high school civics classes that America was based on honor and honesty and fair play. We know that was sucker chum fed to us masses – those tired huddled masses yearning to be free- while powerful elites were in back rooms boiling us like ignorant frogs.

  6. Howard Karger has written an entire book on various entirely legal usury scams designed specifically to fleece poor people, called /Short Changed./ I recommend it highly. The relevance to this article is that in ranking the worst scams for ruining the lives of poor people, he ranked Buy Here Pay Here used car lots as even worse than prepaid credit card scams, check cashing scams, and payday loan scams in terms of ripping people off for the most unconscionable interest rates, on terms that guarantee that they will get the maximum amount of cash out of their victims before getting 100% of their collateral back.

    Bet your bottom dollar that auto dealers will lobby their hearts out to keep this scam running. There are unconscionable amounts of money to be made out of scamming poor people, and poor people can’t afford lobbyists.

  7. UNTIL WE GET SOMEONE IN THE White House who knows how to run a business we are all doomed. I agree with this link 100% read this:

    http://americaspeaksink.com/2009/11/how-about-a-business-man-for-our-next-president/