Credit Card Blues

Like most Americans I use credit cards.  I use them to buy online and to save the hassle of carrying cash.  Mostly these days I use my debit card but credit cards are great if your stove dies and you need to pay a repairperson or buy a new stove.  Or help with expenses if you are going to graduate school late in life as I did.  But they are a trap.  I remember a time when I cringed if I didn’t pay off the balance each month.  Those days are long gone.

James Surowiecki wrote a great piece for the New Yorker’s  Financial Page  in which he explains very clearly why credit cards companies need regulation as badly as the other financial markets.

It’s little wonder, then, that credit-card companies are now scrambling to shed the customers they think are most likely to default, and to limit the amount that others can spend. In effect, they’re trying to follow the advice given by Larry Selden and Geoffrey Colvin in a book called “Angel Customers & Demon Customers.” Not all customers are equal, it turns out: some are tremendously profitable, while others, like the guy who calls customer service six times a day to check his account balance, cost more than they’re worth. To boost profits, you must cultivate the angels and protect yourself against the demons.

That sounds easy enough. But credit-card companies have created a strange business, in which there’s a fine line between good and bad customers. Their best customers aren’t those who dutifully pay off their balance every month; instead, they’re the ones who charge a lot and pay only a little every month, carrying a sizable balance and racking up interest charges and late fees. These are the “revolvers,” and the credit-card business feeds on them. Credit-card companies don’t necessarily want revolvers to pay off their debts; if they did, there’d be no interest or fees to collect. They want their loans to be, in the words of a banking regulator, “a perpetual earning asset.”

One of the things that credit card companies are doing is increasing interest rates – even on money borrowed at a lower rate.

This increase is partly a response to the greater risk of default, but it also takes advantage of the recession. Many cardholders don’t have enough money to pay off their balance in full, so when interest rates rise they aren’t able to just close their account and get a different card. Effectively, they’re captive customers. And since credit-card companies, unlike most lenders, are allowed to change the terms of their loans at any time, people who borrowed a big chunk of money at, say, nine per cent may now be paying seventeen per cent on the loan.

These tactics are not going to improve the credit-card industry’s dismal reputation. They’re also not going to help an economy in recession, since reduced credit lines take away an important cushion for consumer spending, and higher interest rates and increased fees are likely to drive more people to default. But the odd thing is that while less access to revolving credit is a bad thing for us in the short run, having people rely less on credit cards is a good thing in the long run.

Will Congress and the administration step up to help ease this transition?  A good first step would be higher rates only on new balances to let people pay off the old ones at a reasonable rate – both time and interest.

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