Personal Finance

Congress eases rules against racial discrimination in the auto loan market

Key Points
  • Without the guidance, advocates say, lenders will revert to older practices.
  • Here's how to make sure you're getting the best loan.
Auto loans hitting record levels

The color of your skin can make buying a car more expensive, decades of experiments and data show.

As a result, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau put out a notice in 2013 reaffirming that discriminatory auto lending is illegal.

The House voted Tuesday to undo that guidance, weeks after the Senate took the same action. The measure now moves to President Donald Trump, who is expected to sign it into law.

Here's what you should know.

Why the guidance was issued 

Car dealers often work with third-party lenders, such as banks or credit unions, to provide financing options to consumers.

Once that "indirect" lender offers the car dealer an interest rate on an auto loan, the dealer is often allowed to mark up that rate to the buyer for additional compensation. Such dealer discretion has resulted in discriminatory lending practices, research shows.

"A loan origination should be as objective as possible, but when you add discretion, you add subjective means that are harder to keep transparent and hold accountable," said Delvin Davis of the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit research and advocacy group for consumers, which conducted the auto lending research.

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Just this year, the National Fair Housing Alliance, a collection of organizations that fight against housing and other types of lending discrimination, launched an investigation into the auto loan industry by sending white and nonwhite "testers" into car dealerships in Virginia.

More than 60 percent of the time, the nonwhite individuals who were more qualified than their white counterparts were given more costly options. As a result, people of color who faced discrimination would pay an average of $2,662 more over the length of the loan.

Advocates have long pushed for the government to step in and address this double standard.

A spokesman for The National Automobile Dealers Association, a trade group, said claims that the removal of this guidance would encourage discrimination were "completely baseless."

"America's franchised auto dealers strongly believe that every customer deserves to be treated fairly, and that there is no room for discrimination of any kind in auto retailing — period," said Jared Allen, senior director of media relations.

What the guidance said and did 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau's 2013 guidance explained how the Equal Credit Opportunity Act — which prohibits lending based on an individual's race, religion, sex or age —also applied to the auto loan industry.

And it made clear that lenders who offer loans through dealerships are responsible for any unlawful and discriminatory pricing.

Shortly after the guidance was issued, the CFPB and the Department of Justice reached their "largest auto loan discrimination settlement in history" with Ally Bank, for charging more than 235,000 minority borrowers higher interest rates for auto loans between 2011 and 2013. The bank was ordered to pay $80 million in damages to harmed African-American, Hispanic and Asian and Pacific Islander borrowers and $18 million in penalties.

In response to a request for comment, a spokesman for Ally pointed to the statement the lender issued after the settlement: "Ally does not engage in or condone violations of law or discriminatory practices, and based on the company's analysis of its business, it does not believe that there is measurable discrimination by auto dealers."

Since then, the government also has reached settlements with Fifth Third Bank, Toyota and Honda over those companies' lending practices.

A spokesman for Honda said that while it did reach a settlement with the CFPB, it disagreed with the way in which the government tested for bias.

"[We] firmly believe that our lending practices have been fair and transparent," Chris Martin of Honda said. Fifth Third Bank and Toyota did not respond to requests for comment.

The worries ahead

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Advocates said they worry the reversal of this guidance would cause auto lenders and dealers to price loans on criteria other than creditworthiness and income.

"It's amazing how large companies began to behave themselves simply knowing that they were being watched," said Hilary Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy and policy at the NAACP. "Now we'll see them going back to their discriminatory practices."

Such a turnaround is already underway, said Davis, the lead researcher on auto lending at the Center for Responsible Lending.

Amid the scrutiny from the consumer bureau, BB&T, a retail bank that issues auto loans, voluntarily shifted from its interest rate markup model to a flat-fee method, in which every auto loan generates the same compensation, Davis said.

"But once the change in the CFPB leadership happened," Davis said, "BB&T changed back to their original state of allowing interest rate markups."

David R. White, vice president of corporate communications at BB&T, said that the company is committed to the equal treatment of all consumers — and that the return to the interest fee model was to improve its business.

"We introduced a more traditional auto pricing program in March of this year to provide our dealer clients with more options and better flexibility," White said.

In a press release, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., one of the authors of the legislation to reverse the guidance, said doing so would "return a sense of stability to the auto marketplace, ultimately providing a path to lower costs for all car purchasers."

What you can do to protect yourself 

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Consumers should go to their bank or credit union and get preapproved for an auto loan before they enter a car dealership, Davis said.

"Once you have that approval, you're basically taking that check to the dealership and it can become a good negotiation chip that you can use," Davis said.

Look out for unnecessary "add-ons" that might be wrapped up in an auto loan. These features, such as extended warranties, may be cheaper when purchased from a third party.

"It's incumbent on the consumer to make sure you realize everything that's in your contract and don't be afraid to ask questions," Davis said.

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