Don’t let the title fool you, as this isn’t the usual holiday fare. In fact, you may strongly disagree with who and what I count among the industry’s blessings. But let me explain why you shouldn’t.
See, I believe we should all be thankful for the state and federal regulators who establish the rules we are required to follow and monitor our actions. We should also be thankful for the lawyers who prosecute those who break those rules.
“Bah, humbug!” you say. Consider this: If it weren’t for this troika, the F&I process — and the retail automotive industry as we know it — would not exist. Even the most ardent proponents of free enterprise recognize that it cannot serve the needs of all involved without rules, oversight and the presence of an overarching authority.
That hasn’t always been the case. Technological advancements between 1820 and 1870 stoked the embers of free enterprise in the United States. However, it was the ruthlessly powerful industrialists of the late 19th century who capitalized on and exposed the flaws of unbridled capitalism.
The Progressive Era between 1900 and 1917 saved capitalism from itself. The federal government dismantled the powerful trusts and regulated the railroads and other key industries. Yes, imperfections, inherent inequities, and personal and institutional biases continue to exist. And at times, the interplay between the state and federal governmental bodies and the icons of capitalism has been rancorous, but we do enjoy an economic engine and standard of living that ranks in the upper echelon of the world’s economies. That’s why the three aforementioned government-generated touchpoints in the auto industry warrant our thanks.
For those working in the F&I box, whether the rules, oversight and legal repercussions are a blessing or a curse depends on whether you’re being naughty or nice. The naughty should be mindful that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general are in the process of performing what they believe is a long overdue high colonic on every facet of the retail automobile industry.
Evidence suggests that their forays will extend well beyond the usual suspects of noncompliant advertising and prima facie scams. A case in point is the CFPB’s pursuit of disparate buy rate practices, though recent revelations suggest there’s a lack of empirical data to justify the initiative and nebulous methodology for gauging discrepancies. Another is the bureau’s interest in subjecting aftermarket products to a retail cost/consumer benefit analysis.
On a broader front, action is being taken against dealers who pack payments. It’s a passé practice that negatively impacts new- and used-car gross and rarely translates into a deal-closing spur for the customer. It also exposes the store to regulator-initiated administrative action with the potential for unfair, deceptive or abusive acts or practices claims filed by disgruntled customers. If anyone’s looking for a New Year’s resolution, dropping payment packing should be first on their list.
If there’s a blessing in any of this, it’s that the car-buying public will benefit from the federal and state actions against errant dealers. How? Well, a significant number of consumers will enjoy an improved car-buying experience with the decline in nefarious practices — both in dealerships responding to legal or administrative action and stores in which the operators were scared into changing their ways.
Reports of unscrupulous dealers being identified and summarily dealt with will also strengthen consumer faith in franchised dealer transactions. Yes, there will always be dishonest operators and F&I practitioners who’ll consider it a blessing they didn’t get caught, and their duplicitous dealings will continue until, inevitably, they are exposed.
The good news is the in-depth coverage in the popular press accorded illegal dealer activities will put prospective buyers on alert and educate them about specific practices that work to their detriment. However, if you have a working knowledge of the state and federal rules, are well-versed on product knowledge and solicitation techniques, and maintain the ethical bearing to structure deals to the benefit of all involved, you will be blessed with the personal and pecuniary rewards that come from doing it right.
David Robertson is the executive director of the Association of Finance & Insurance Professionals (AFIP). Email him at [email protected]