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The CFPB Strikes Back

The editor has newfound sympathy for captive finance companies after facing a stern rebuke from the CFPB’s media team.

January 14, 2015

So I learned a good lesson last month: If you want to get a comment out of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), take a swipe at its media relations department.

At the center of my exchange with the bureau’s media team was a news item we posted online on Dec. 11. It focused on an annual report issued by the CFPB ombudsman’s office, which hears and investigates complaints against the agency. So the swipe wasn’t intentional on our part, but I will admit my better editorial judgment may have failed me.

The 25-page report, the third one issued by the ombudsman’s office, noted that transparency remains an issue for the CFPB. But the report offered something new: Apparently, trade groups took issue last year with the difference in language between the bureau’s consent orders and their corresponding press releases. It’s an issue the ombudsman is going to investigate next year, according to the report.

We, however, made the mistake of reporting that consumer groups also took issue with the way the bureau’s media relations department crafts press releases, which was the first issue raised in the email I received from my CFPB contact. See, the ombudsman noted in the report that the alleged issues were raised in individual inquires. My mistake was not confirming what that meant.

Hey, I never said I was perfect.

Because the ombudsman didn’t offer any examples, my team looked back at the $98 million consent order Ally signed in December 2013 with the CFPB and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and compared it to the associated press release. The order stated that Ally’s auto lending practices resulted in “statistically significant” disparities between what white and nonwhite car buyers were charged in dealer markups on interest rates. The press release, however, noted that Ally specifically “harmed” minority buyers.

Here’s what my media contact said about that: “The consent order states that Ally’s practices caused $80 million in consumer damages. If a consumer suffers damages as a result of a company’s illegal practices, it seems accurate to and consistent to describe that as ‘harm.’”

My contact also took issue with us writing that the release prompted Ally to issue a statement on Dec. 20, 2013, disputing the allegation that it harmed consumers. In it, the finance source said it doesn’t “tolerate discrimination.” Here’s how my contact responded: “And it may be the case that Ally issued a statement saying it does not tolerate discrimination, but the consent order explicitly says that Ally’s policy and practice constitute discrimination in violation of federal law.”

He was right; Page 8 of the consent order does say exactly that. But the industry has said all along that finance sources do not make loans directly to consumers. Instead, they purchase installment contracts structured by auto dealers. And I guess I made a bad call when I assumed that’s what Ally was getting at in the following statement:
“The CFPB and DOJ also assert that Ally has responsibility for the conduct of its dealer customers and allege that Ally has not sufficiently monitored the pricing practices of its dealer customers.”

My CFPB contact went on to say that all press releases and consent orders are written in different styles for different audiences. “Consent orders are legal documents with legal terminology,” he wrote. “Press releases are written in plainer language for a broader audience that includes consumers who may be impacted by illegal practices.”

I wasn’t the only one the CFPB struck back at in December. In November, I predicted we’d be hearing from the CFPB after the American Financial Services Association (AFSA) released a report that slammed the bureau’s examination of dealer participation.

No, the agency’s directors didn’t respond to the report’s findings, which called into question its use of the Bayesian Improved Surname Geocoding proxy method to measure disparities in dealer reserve. But it did join the DOJ in notifying Toyota Motor Credit Corp. and American Honda Corp. that they faced possible enforcement actions related to their dealer participation policies. We learned of the warnings in regulatory filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission — about two weeks after the AFSA released its study.

It’s going to be an interesting year. I just hope this column opens up the communication lines between the magazine and the CFPB, because like the two captives indicated in their filings, our mission is to help dealers better serve car buyers.

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