The next front in the banking wars will be over credit cards. Some of the nation's biggest bankers -- including representatives of Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, and other recipients of billions of taxpayer dollars -- are meeting today with the president to ask him to back off of his move to reform credit-card lending practices.
What's happening to credit-card lending is a smaller replay of what happened to mortgage lending. For years, banks used every gimmick possible to get the public to use their cards -- regardless of the credit worthiness of the customer. They lured borrowers with low "teaser" rates. They told borrowers they could get by simply by paying minimum balances.
And now that tens of millions of Americans are poorer than they used to be, the credit-card bubble is bursting. Credit-card delinquencies are soaring. At Bank of America, the largest U.S. lender by assets, 7.8 percent of credit-card accounts were delinquent in February by more than 30 days, up from 5.9 percent last August. Yesterday, Bank of America reported a $1.8 billion first-quarter loss in its credit-card services unit.
As delinquencies mount and profits shrink, card lenders are raising fees and interest rates, including rates on existing balances. They're also charging higher fees when customers exceed their credit limits, and shortening the duration of the teaser rates. When a customer makes a payment in excess of what's owed, card companies now routinely apply the excess to balances with the lowest rates rather than those carrying the highest rates. And banks disclose very little of relevance: For example, most customers have no idea how long it will take them to pay off their balances if they make minimum repayments, or what interest they're actually paying on their balances.
As more and more Americans find themselves in the credit-card squeeze, they're complaining loudly. But the bankers have their own loud lobbyists on Capitol Hill, whose voices haven't been muzzled despite the giant bank bailout. Last month, the Senate Banking Committee reported a bill that bans rate increases for existing balances, among other things. But the vote was close -- 12 in favor, 11 opposed -- and its future in the Senate is uncertain. A House bill advanced yesterday, sponsored by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, has only a 50-50 chance of succeeding. Meanwhile, the Fed is working on a set of watered-down reforms scheduled to go into effect a year from July, but that's way too far off to avoid the pending battle.
Enter Obama. The Treasury holds lots of cards given how dependent the big banks are on its solicitude. Meanwhile, the public has grown weary and suspicious of the bank bailouts. Knowing how unpopular the bailouts have become, the administration is considering how to get additional capital to the banks without going back to Congress for the money. One big idea is to convert taxpayer-provided bank loans into bank equity -- even though the swap puts taxpayers at greater risk (after all, loans have to be repaid, but equity can continue to fall).
That's why getting tough on the banks' credit-card lending practices has such appeal for the administration, politically. It puts the White House on the side of the people rather than Wall Street, on an issue that the public is becoming more and more upset about. And the administration's push could be enough to get reform legislation through Congress.
The bankers will tell Obama today that any new constraints on credit-card lending will cause the banks to reduce the amount of credit-card lending they do, which will hurt the economy. But it's a weak argument because it presupposes that any lending is good for the economy -- even lending to people who don't know what they're getting into and can't repay the loans. It's the same argument banks used two years ago, when prescient observers warned that constraints had to be placed on mortgage-lending practices. What may hurt the economy in the short term, we now know, may save it from even larger pitfalls to come.