Auto dealers are directly responsible for writing up the lion’s share of the $850 billion auto lending market. Like home mortgages, most of those loans are then packaged, securitized and sold on Wall Street to investors — spreading the risk around. New and used car dealers are also the leading source of consumer complaints to state and local consumer protection agencies and the Better Business Bureau. They played a major role in the collapse of the economy and the recession.
Despite years of being warned by economic analysts that their predatory practices were a “house of cards” that would inevitably collapse, they failed to rein in their abuses. Instead, their practices went from bad to worse — including falsifying loan applications and forging signatures on documents, and selling cars they didn’t even own — massively defrauding the public, banks, and other dealerships.
So why aren’t they regulated under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act?
Simple. It’s because they were granted a special exemption, by Congress. The claim that dealers made, to rationalize this special treatment, was that auto dealers are supposedly “Main Street, not Wall Street.” This talking point became their oft-repeated refrain with members of Congress and the press. Never mind that it was laughably false.
Former U.S. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) presented the amendment to give the special exemption from Dodd-Frank to auto dealers, on the Senate Floor. Not surprisingly, he merely mouthed the car dealer line about their not being part of Wall Street. He claimed that car dealers
“are the quintessential Main Street business throughout the country. There’s not a single auto dealer on Wall Street. None of them. Not a one. You can go up there today and try to buy a car and you can’t get one. These are Main Street businesses.”
Too bad what Sen. Brownback told his Senate colleagues was totally false. A simple check of readily available public filings would have revealed that actually over 1,000 dealerships are owned by huge automotive dealership chains that are indeed traded on Wall Street.
Exhibit A: the behemoth AutoNation, based in Florida, which owns more than 215 dealerships, and took in over $13 billion during 2011. Bill Gates is one of the major investors who owns shares of AutoNation. Hardly most people’s idea of Main Street.
Here’s a link to Brownback’s floor speech, recorded by C-Span and posted on the U.S. Senate website. Sen. Brownback’s speech appears approximately 2 hours and 53 minutes after the recording starts:
Reality check: Among the leading auto dealership chains that are publicly traded on Wall Street (revenue based on figures from Automotive News, March 12, 2012 — for the year 2011):
AutoNation — 215 dealerships, over $13 billion in revenue
Penske Automotive Group — 145 dealerships, over $11 billion in revenue
Sonic Automotive — 119 dealerships, over $7 billion in revenue
Asbury Automotive Group — 79 dealerships, over $4 billion in revenue
Apparently Sen. Brownback was so gullible, he believed what the auto dealers told him and fell for their line about being Main Street, not Wall Street, without bothering to check the facts. You can draw your own conclusions about his intelligence, or motives. Let’s just say that if you’re buying a car, he’s probably not someone you would want to ask for advice on how to get a good deal.
So — if you’re ripped off by an auto dealer, who would otherwise be policed by the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, created under Dodd-Frank, who do you have to blame? Well, the dealer, of course. Plus former Sen. Brownback, who is now the Republican Governor of Kansas. Plus all the members of Congress who failed to stand up to the auto dealer lobby, whether because they were so ignorant about the business, or gullible, or just plain corrupted by auto dealer cash. Interestingly, all the Republicans voted to exempt the car dealers, who are among their biggest sources of campaign cash. Most Democrats voted against the exemption, which was opposed personally by President Obama.
And if you’re ripped off by an AutoNation dealership, you can blame one of their largest shareholders, who profits from their billions in revenue — Bill Gates.