Oct 28, 2014

    Citi's new car-loan deal sounds good - in theory

    CITIBANK'S latest salvo in the car-loan business might seem like a valiant attempt to get rid of the middlemen on behalf of the customer. But the drive could hit the proverbial wall, given the powerful influence that car dealers wield in the car-loan market.

    In a week's time, the bank will offer in-principle approval for a car loan to customers before they shop for a car. This deviates from the existing practice, under which car companies receive a commission from the bank in exchange for submitting a loan application on behalf of the car buyer.

    Interest rates from Citi's latest offering start at 1.48 per cent, lower than the market rate, which typically has the value of the commission embedded.

    As a comparison, OCBC - a major player in the car-loan market - is offering rates that start at 1.88 per cent per annum for new cars.

    And, like OCBC, the other two big financial institutions in this market, DBS and Hong Leong Finance, offer rates of up to 2.6 per cent per annum.

    Citi, with its 3 per cent market share, can afford to stir up a hornet's nest.

    It has argued that consumers should be offered more choices, as other services - such as travel - have already done. So a car buyer can either take a bank loan that is more expensive but comes loaded with dealership freebies, or go with a no-frills direct loan.

    That's true, in theory. And such a disruption, even as Citi shied from the label, has already been attempted with car insurance with direct sales.

    But dealers hold the upper hand when it comes to car loans. There's nothing to stop dealers from sewing up exclusive tie-ups with certain banks. For example, BMW provides financing to its customers, but only through DBS.

    While turning away buyers with direct-loan applications may be extreme, there's much dealers can do to discourage this.

    Dealership freebies, usually offered to buyers who sign up for the full package, are not to be scoffed at. These can include vehicle servicing and huge discounts on cars, car players say.

    The car market is tough - curbs on financing have led the car-loan market to shrink to about $9 billion as of August.

    Still, the general upward trend of car certificate of entitlement (COE) premiums since May suggests enough buyers, and more could be drawn in when premiums float lower in the coming months as more COEs are expected.

    So dealers can afford to shun direct-loan applications in favour of a buyer who would pay them a fee, industry sources say.

    There are also other ways dealers can embed a lost commission into the overall car price, so consumers do not necessarily win with direct-loan arrangements.

    Citi acknowledged that its relationship with dealers will change from here on, though its existing dealership partners have remained, for now. Other banks that are big players have stayed silent on the topic.

    The bigger question is whether this could prompt more transparency in the car market, so consumers are more aware of the wheeling and dealing behind their purchases. But this may require more regulations and banks, regardless of where they stand on car loans, are unlikely to lead the charge in this respect.