Sunday, November 30, 2008

Credit Card Crisis Next?

The marketing of credit cards by banks has mystified me for years. How can banks shower the public with credit cards offers like confetti, charge usurious interest rates, tack on exorbitant fees and still have customers who are able to keep up with payments? The answer might be coming soon and it appears the answer will be—not forever. Speculation in financial news reports is that the subprime mortgage crisis will be followed by a credit card crisis.

A Reuters news story: “Looming credit card debt may be the next crisis” quotes John Whitehead, former chairman of Goldman Sachs Group, as saying that a credit card crisis is “waiting in the wings.” And a USA Today story “Why banks are boosting credit card interest rates and fees," quotes Gregory Larkin, a senior analyst at Innovest, as saying "Mortgages were simply the first storm to make landfall. Credit cards are next." According to Innovest, a research firm, by the end of 2009 banks are likely to write off 10% of credit card debt—a staggering $96 billion.

The aggressive marketing of consumer debt appears counter to the careful conservative image we generally have of loan officers and underwriters. After all, most people who loan money to friends and family members expect to be paid back. Are not banks in business to be paid back? Yet even individuals who have rung up tens of thousands of dollars in consumer debt are still inundated with new credit card offers.

So why are banks so intent on lending money to people with questionable means to pay it back? The answer in a word is—securitization. Just as they did with mortgages, banks have packaged and sold credit card debt in the form of securities to unwitting investors. The risk associated with the debt becomes some else’s problem. In the mean time if customers stay in debt, the bank can profit from hefty fees associated with managing the account.

It is actually more profitable for the banks if it customers are overloaded with debt. If a customer has too much debt to pay back in a reasonable period of time, he or she has no choice but to accept whatever additional fees and interest rate hikes the bank decides to levy. A further irony is that the inability of a customer to easily pay off the debt can be used as justification for imposing the additional fees and rate hikes.

Banks looking to make up for losses during the current financial crisis are finding that customers with outstanding credit card debt are easy targets. The USA Today story reported on consumers like Tommy Newsom who never missed a payment but had his credit card interest rate doubled to 27% for no apparent reason other than the law allowed the increase.

Banks justify sudden interest rate increases by claiming that a customer’s risk category has changed. A spokeswoman for Bank of America was quoted in the USA Today story has saying that the bank "regularly assesses the risk profile of accounts. If the bank decides to raise a customer's rate, it will notify the customer first and give him or her the chance to "opt out" and pay off the card balance at the existing rate.”

But notice the two-headed quarter in use in this statement. Customers whose “risk profile” have changed are most likely the ones identified as being unable to “opt out.” Without the means to pay off the balance the customer’s only option is to “accept” the new rate.

Banks can get away with this behavior because of loan agreements that are not agreements in the ordinary sense of the word. Credit card agreements contain language that allows the terms of the agreement to be changed by one party (the bank) at any time for any reason. The legality of such an agreement will never be tested in a court of law because consumers also sign away the right to sue. Only binding arbitration is permitted as means of resolving disputes in credit card agreements.

Of course the bank’s response to rising levels of credit card debt will accelerate the impending crisis rather than avert it. No need to worry though. More than likely customer paid tax-dollars will be sent to bailout the banks.