Automakers’ Lending Practices Probed by U.S. for Bias

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Department of Justice are examining the lending operations of major auto manufacturers for possible discrimination in lending, according to regulatory filings and three people briefed on the inquiry.

Toyota Motor Credit Corp., a financing arm of Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp. (7203), said in a Sept. 13 regulatory filing that the CFPB and Justice sought information from it “and other auto finance providers” about pricing practices for loans that the company funds for auto dealers.

If the agencies find that Toyota violated the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, a 1974 law barring discrimination in lending, the company could face unspecified legal action, it said.

American Honda Finance Corp., a unit of Honda Motor Co. (7267) Ltd, reported the same request, and added that enforcement action is possible. “Although neither the CFPB nor the U.S. Department of Justice has alleged any wrongdoing on our part, we cannot predict the outcome of the inquiry,” Honda said in an Aug. 19 regulatory filing.

As many as five other auto lenders affiliated with manufacturers have received similar requests for data that may be related to the borrowers’ racial background, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Sam Gilford, a spokesman for the CFPB, and Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for Justice, declined to comment.

‘Dealer Markup’

The CFPB and Justice have sought data about a practice the agency refers to as “dealer markup” and auto dealers call “dealer participation” or “dealer-assisted finance.” Under this system, lenders -- banks or finance companies -- work indirectly by allowing dealers to add to the interest rate the lenders charge and pocket the difference.

Consumer groups charge the practice gives dealers an incentive to move buyers into pricier loans. Dealers say the markup is a reasonable price for their services, which include arranging financing and handling paperwork, and that buyers can negotiate the spread.

In March, the consumer bureau cautioned banks that it supervises that they face enforcement action if they fund discriminatory vehicle loans that are made by dealers. CFPB directly examines banks with more than $10 billion in assets, ranging from JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM) to Lafayette, Louisiana-based Iberiabank Corp. (IBKC)

The warning drew extensive criticism from auto dealers, who were explicitly carved out of the 2010 Dodd-Frank law that created CFPB. Members of the U.S. Congress have also asked for information about how the CFPB will determine whether discrimination exists.

‘Disparate Impact’

Last year, CFPB indicated it would apply a legal doctrine known as “disparate impact” to consumer financial products. The doctrine states that lenders can be sanctioned for actions that have a discriminatory effect -- as demonstrated by statistical analysis, for example -- even if they didn’t intend to discriminate.

Determining disparate impact requires information on borrowers’ races and interest rates, so the agencies sought large amounts of data from the lenders beginning last year, according to the three people briefed on their inquiry. Some of them began providing the information in June, the people said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Carter Dougherty in Washington at cdougherty6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Maura Reynolds at mreynolds34@bloomberg.net

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