Auto Loans Were Left out of the CARES Act, and People Are Hurting

  • The number of auto-loan-related complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) was higher in the five months from March to July than any other five-month period.
  • Of the automaker-affiliated lenders, General Motors got the most complaints, followed by Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, and Honda.
  • The public-interest group U.S. PIRG Education Fund said government intervention at all levels is needed to protect consumers, but that’s highly unlikely to happen before the election.

    The Trump administration has made a point of how the bipartisan CARES Act, which passed in March, has helped average Americans. Whether it was the Economic Impact Payments or the Paycheck Protection Program, there was an undeniable push earlier this year to help the millions of people impacted by the coronavirus. But dig into the details a little bit, and you’ll soon see how the CARES Act didn’t come close to covering every aspect of financial damage that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought on the economy.

    Case in point: auto loans. Some types of loans were affected by the CARES Act, including forbearance for federally backed loans for some multifamily rental property owners and mortgages, as well as a temporary suspension of federal student loans. But auto loans were not protected in any way. That meant that anyone with an auto loan who missed some payments over the last half-year might have taken a hit to their credit score.

    As the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services said in early April, “The CARES Act suspends negative credit reporting for eligible federal student loan payments only, but not for any other loan obligation.” Individual auto-loan lenders may have offered some COVID-related relief, but there is nothing in the CARES Act that forced them to do so.

    Sharp Spike in Complaints about Loans

    Given all of this, it’s unsurprising that problems with auto loan debts are exploding. A new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Education Fund found that there has been a “sharp spike” in complaints to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) related to auto purchasing, leasing, and financing since the beginning of the pandemic. The hard numbers in the CFPB’s complaint database show that more than 2800 auto loan and lease complaints were submitted between March and July 2020. That is more than during any other five-month period in the history of the database, U.S. PIRG said.

    Since the beginning of March, more than one in five complaints about auto loans or leases have mentioned COVID-19. These complaints were about a number of issues, including being denied auto loan payment relief, changing loan terms, billing problems, and harassing behavior by debt collectors.

    Complaints about auto loans have been flowing into the CFPB for years. Ed Mierzwinski, the senior director of U.S. PIRG’s federal consumer program, told Car and Driver that when you look at the number of complaints per company regarding “vehicle loan or lease” between April 2017 and July 2020—which is basically the time frame covering the full range of available complaints since the CFPB reorganized complaints in the database in April 2017—you can see that lenders including Santander and Ally Financial received the most complaints (2347 and 1437, respectively). But automaker financial arms were also on the receiving end of unhappy customer reports. The General Motors Financial Company was the subject of 938 complaints, followed by Toyota Motor Credit Corporation (742), Hyundai Capital (677), Nissan Motor Acceptance Corporation (515), and American Honda Finance Corporation (453).

    To be sure, it’s not just the pandemic that’s affecting auto loans. People are taking out larger loans for longer terms as the average new-car price continues to climb, trends that started well before 2020. Marketwatch notes that around a third of U.S. borrowers, over 100 million Americans, owe money on a vehicle.

    Emergency Government Aid Not on Horizon

    The U.S. PIRG Education Fund is recommending that states, localities, and the federal government “continue and bolster emergency programs for the duration of the pandemic—such as guaranteeing access to loan relief programs and banning debt collection, vehicle repossessions, and negative credit reporting” as a way to protect consumers in the auto marketplace.

    That’s unlikely to happen, as the chance that any relief package could be passed before the election on November 3 is dwindling, according to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin in the Washington Post. “I’d say at this point getting something done before the election and executing on that would be difficult, just given where we are,” he said Wednesday.

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