Tag Archives: credit cards

ABA Argues That Black Is White and Must Stay That Way

By James Kwak

I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about the Whitehouse Amendment, which would allow states to regulate the interest rates charged to their residents. According to a 1978 Supreme Court decision, financial institutions are governed by the law of the state that they reside in, not the laws of the states they do business in; the result was the current situation, where the big credit card issuers are based in South Dakota, because Citibank basically wrote South Dakota’s consumer credit laws. In its essence, the amendment says this: “The interest applicable to any consumer credit transaction [not a mortgage], including any fees, points, or time-price differential associated with such a transaction, may not exceed the maximum permitted by any law of the State in which the consumer resides.”

Obviously I’m in favor of it, as the current system just allows the worst kind of regulatory arbitrage. (Note that administration officials like to oppose strict legislative measures, like a hard leverage cap, on the grounds that these things need to be negotiated internationally so that banks won’t just set up shop in the most lightly-regulated jurisdiction — yet that’s exactly what happens with credit cards.) But I wasn’t sure what there was to add, since Mike Konczal and Bob Lawless have already weighed in.

Then I read the ABA’s argument against the amendment, that gave me all the motivation I needed.

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Happy CARD Act Day

By James Kwak

Most provisions of last year’s CARD Act restricting certain types of behavior by credit card issuers go into effect today. Card issuers, of course, are adapting by seeking out new ways to make money. One, pointed out by Felix Salmon, is expanding their usage of rewards cards, since (according to the Times) they get a higher interchange fee on rewards cards than on other cards. (This baffles me, but whatever.) Rewards programs, as it turns out, are subsidized by everyone in the form of higher prices for all goods bought at retail.

Put another way, this is the credit card industry (partially) shifting its sights from consumers, who benefit from (modest) legislative and regulatory protections, to the retailers, who don’t. It’s also what you would expect when you have extremely high concentration among card issuers (and transaction networks) and low concentration among retailers. Perhaps consumers aren’t the only constituency that needs a little protection.

Credit Card Cleverness

Most of the provisions of the Credit CARD Act of 2009 go into effect on February 22. Card issuers are adapting in various ways. I’ve previously written about the 79.9% APR (used to get around the limit on up-front fees for subprime cards). Now one of our readers has written in about an even more clever gimmick.

Here’s the letter:

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When a 79.9% APR Is Good?

Adam Levitin wrote an informative post on Credit Slips a couple of weeks ago; I missed it but it looks like no one in my RSS reader has mentioned it, so here goes. One provision of last year’s credit card legislation limited up-front fees to 25% of the line of credit being offered. First Premier Bank currently offers a card with a $250 credit line, $124 in up-front one-time fees, a $48 annual fee, and a $7 monthly fee. Oh, and a 9.9% APR on purchases. That adds up to $179 that gets billed immediately, and a total of $256 over the first year–more than the credit line. Because this card will become illegal in February, they are test-marketing a new card that has a $300 credit line, $75 in up-frontfees (to conform with the law; there could be a monthly fee in addition), and a 79.9% APR.

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Did Demand for Credit Really Fall?

One standard attack against banks is that they have not expanded lending sufficiently to help the economy recover. The standard defense has been that the supply of credit collapsed only in response to a collapse in the demand for credit. The primary measure of demand for credit that I know of is the one compiled by the Federal Reserve by surveying bank lending officers; it shows falling demand for all types of credit from 2006, with an acceleration in the fall in late 2008.

Presumably this is based on the number of people walking into bank branch offices (or calling up on the phone, or applying online, etc.). But Google has another way of tracking demand for credit; the Google Credit & Lending Index measures the relative volume of searches* for certain terms like “credit card,” “loan,” and “credit report.” There’s some seasonality there, but in general the levels look higher in Q4 2008 and Q1 2009 than in Q4 2007 and Q1 2008.

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What’s on TV

Frontline has a program on tonight about the credit card industry, which may be a useful accompaniment to the regulatory reform debate. They include this juicy paragraph in their press release:

“They’re lower-income people-bad credits, bankrupts, young credits, no credits,” Mehta [former CEO of Providian] says. Providian also innovated by offering “free” credit cards that carried heavy hidden fees. “I used to use the word ‘penalty pricing’ or ‘stealth pricing,’” Mehta tells FRONTLINE. “When people make the buying decision, they don’t look at the penalty fees because they never believe they’ll be late. They never believe they’ll be over limit, right? … Our business took off. … We were making a billion dollars a year.”

Rings true to me.

By James Kwak

Innovation, Regulation, and Credit Cards

Fresh Air had an excellent interview with Georgetown law professor Adam Levitin, who blogs here. It’s only 21 minutes and I recommend it if you are interested in credit cards or in financial regulation in general.

Credit cards are an interesting if perhaps extreme case of the interplay between “innovation” and regulation in the financial industry. A long time ago, someone invented the credit card. This was a real, beneficial innovation, because it allowed people to make medium-sized purchases on credit. (You could already buy a house on credit, if you put 30% down.) Let’s say that without credit, it would take you nine months to save enough money to buy a refrigerator. Now you could buy the refrigerator and then save the money; it might take you ten months with the interest, but you get to use the refrigerator for that whole time. (A refrigerator could also save you money, because it might allow you to go shopping less often, buy in bulk, and eat at home more.) All good so far.

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