When traditional lenders contend that consumers should have access to loans at the lowest possible rates but refuse to offer rates comparable to those being offered by others, it's time for the buyer to beware.

To suggest, for example, that automobile-loan rates of 10 percent or more are bargains in today's market demonstrates little respect for consumers' intelligence. Yet, that's what local lenders and their counterparts nationwide are doing when they refuse to offer rates that are competitive with those available as part of the cut-rate financing programs sponsored by the Big Three U.S. auto manufacturers.

To get around competition that's apparently cutting into the banking industry's double-digit auto-loan business, the Consumer Bankers Association -- an industry trade group based in Arlington -- is challenging the Big Three's cut-rate financing program. As reported earlier, the CBA is asking officials in 13 states to investigate the legality of the auto makers' program under which lending subsidiaries receive low-interest loan subsidies.

While warning of a monopoly of consumer financing by the Big Three, the CBA urged, in a remarkable show of chutzpah, that auto manufacturers provide similar subsidies to traditional lenders, such as banks, savings and loans and credit unions.

"We believe strongly that car buyers and all borrowers should have the widest possible access to loans at the lowest possible rates," declared CBA President Thomas E. Honey. "We also believe that borrowers should have the opportunity to obtain loans from the consumer banking organizations with which they have longstanding relationships and which experience shows they prefer."

The opportunity is there; better rates are elsewhere. Experience shows that banks are unwilling to give up part of the profit margin they enjoy in an otherwise low-interest-rate environment. While it's true that auto-loan rates have come down along with declining money rates since late last year, there is little evidence to support the CBA's posturing. A sampling of local bank auto-loan rates tells a great deal about the CBA's belief that borrowers should have access to lowest possible rates.

Sovran Bank, for example, will finance a minimum $8,000 auto loan at 10.25 percent for up to 60 months, after a down payment of 15 percent. At Riggs National Bank, consumers may finance 80 percent of the balance on a new car by agreeing to pay either 10 percent for up to 48 months or 10.5 percent for 60 months. Citizens Bank of Maryland will finance a balance of 80 percent of the purchase price at 11 percent for four years.

While banks are offering "bargain" auto loan rates at 10 and 12 percent, the federal funds rate -- the rate banks charge each other for the overnight use of reserves in the amount of $1 million or more -- is just over 6 percent. The discount rate -- the fee paid by member banks for loans from the New York Federal Reserve Bank -- is only 6 percent. Some analysts are predicting another drop in the discount rate, probably to 5.5 percent early next month. Other key money rates, including the rate on six-month Treasury bills and six-month certificates of deposit, are in the 6 percent range. And the prime rate -- the basic loan rate that banks charge their best commercial customers -- is down to 8 percent from 9.5 percent at the end of 1985.

By rigidly refusing to reduce consumer-loan rates commensurate with the decline in their cost of funds, banks provide consumers with a clear choice. What they're saying, in effect, is "take it or leave it." Now that consumers increasingly are opting to have their new-car loans financed by lending subsidiaries of the Big Three, the banking industry wants relief.

Banks, however, aren't likely to alter their consumer-loan policies. Consider the following, for what it's worth, from an official at a leading bank in the Washington region:

"Until we see a consumer shift in attitude on variable rates, I don't think you will see consumer-loan rates coming down. On fixed-rate loans you need to take the profit on rates that are available now."

In other words, banks' high profit margins on fixed-rate consumer loans are a "hedge against future interest rate squeezes," the official acknowledged. Thus, consumers as long-term borrowers shouldn't expect to receive low-interest loans that banks make to commercial customers who borrow for much shorter periods, the banker emphasized. "If the consumer mentality would shift so that the market would bear variable-rate loans, I think you'd see consumer rates come down."

That kind of candor reduces the CBA's call for relief and its charges of a monopoly and unfair competition to a charade.