WASHINGTON - A new study on car purchases has found that sales people try to charge members of minority groups higher prices than whites, a finding relevant to bankers.
The researchers, writing in the current issue of American Economic Review, concluded that the sales people are not motivated by racism - the results were the same regardless of the sales person's own race.
Rather, said Ian Ayres of Yale Law School and Peter Siegelman of the American Bar Foundation, the sales people are driven by greed. They historically have found minorities will pay more, so they try to charge them higher prices to earn larger commissions.
American Bankers Association economist Mike ter Maat said bankers should take note. Financial institutions, just like auto dealers, often give loan brokers or car sales people bonuses if they can persuade a customer to pay a higher rate or greater fee.
"The study serves as a warning and a reminder to anyone, including bankers, who are operating in a retail environment in which terms are negotiated," Mr. ter Maat said.
"Don't allow a sales force representing your organization to try to take advantage of a certain customer group's unwillingness to negotiate or lack of awareness of their own negotiating power," he said.
Financial institutions can get into substantial legal trouble if their agents consistently charge minorities more, said Paul Schieber, a partner at Blank, Rome, Comisky & McCauley in Philadelphia.
"There is no question the Equal Credit Opportunity Act would apply and the various civil rights statutes could be triggered and the state human rights laws," Mr. Schieber said. "There is risk there. Absolutely."
Mr. Schieber said he has advised his clients to make their brokers sign statements attesting to their knowledge of fair-lending laws. Others have required their agents to undergo lending bias training, he said.
The Justice Department is pursuing at least two pricing investigations, examining why car dealers consistently charge women and members of minority groups higher financing rates and why at least one mortgage company requires minorities to pay more than whites.