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“The subprime mortgage crisis, but with cars”: John Oliver explains why poor people pay 19% on auto loans

By Ian Kar

John Oliver, host of the HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” takes on the opaque world of auto lending.

Lending money to risky borrowers buying a car is a trillion dollar industry in the United States. Known as subprime auto lending, Oliver points out that while helping people buy a car sounds great, lenders are taking advantage of borrowers with some predatory strategies and absurdly high interest rates.

Some are offering loans to those who have recently filed for bankruptcy. Poor borrowers charged high interest rates–the average rate is 19%– end up under a pile of debt. One clip showed that a woman would have to spend $17,000 paying back a loan for a car worth $3,000.

If you can’t pay, lenders will come after you. Some shut shut off cars remotely. Oliver showed a clip of one woman who explained her car was repossessed with her child still inside the car.

But, Oliver asks, what’s the incentive for Wall Street to extend loans to those who can’t afford them? Turns out, it’s pretty familiar. Banks are bundling these subprime auto loans into packages, and then trading and selling those packages with other banks…which is eerily similar to what banks did with mortgages during the financial crisis of 2008. The auto lending market is much smaller than the housing market, but many pundits think it’s the next big financial bubble.

The segment ends with an “honest” car commercial, featuring Oliver and comedian Keegan-Michael Key explaining how things like “credit scores” or “bankruptcy” won’t deter lenders from giving you a loan.