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Credit card issuers try to stay clear of turmoil

Firms are raising rates and tightening standards to avoid the fate of the mortgage industry.

September 11, 2007|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK — The stream of credit offers that has filled consumers' mailboxes in recent years may be slowing just a bit.

Although credit card issuers and other companies that lend to consumers have escaped the barrage of defaults that mortgage lenders have suffered, they're nonetheless being more careful about who they lend to and under what terms.

Some card issuers are raising interest rates, and others are cutting back offers to less creditworthy customers or lowering credit limits. Personal and auto loans are also going through changes.

For competitive reasons, credit card companies and other lenders are extremely reluctant to reveal the changes they're making. But Jamie Dimon, president and chief executive of JPMorgan Chase & Co., told a recent analysts' conference that his bank, one of the nation's largest card issuers, was cutting back on teaser rates and balance transfers and looking instead to profit from greater growth in existing accounts.

"Lenders are obviously doing some tightening to protect themselves," said Curtis Arnold, founder of of Little Rock, Ark. Arnold said he was seeing "pretty subtle -- but significant -- changes" in credit card offerings.

One card issuer, for example, has reduced the introductory period for which it offers 0% interest from "six months" to "up to six months," Arnold said. Others are doing away with 0% offers and going to teaser rates as high as 5.9%, Arnold said.

James Chessen, chief economist with the American Bankers Assn. trade group in Washington, said of lenders, "We've also heard they're taking a more careful look at people with less-than-stellar credit."

But the changes in consumer credit products are not nearly as extreme as those for mortgages. The dollar amounts involved in credit lines and consumer loans are much smaller and defaults haven't been as worrisome.

"What's driving what's happening in the mortgage market is the increase in delinquencies," said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst with in North Palm Beach, Fla. "These other products haven't shown that surge, and they have protections in place."

Credit card issuers, for example, can raise rates or shut off a customer's line of credit with little notice, he said.

Another reason the changes to consumer loans have been small so far is that markets related to consumer credit haven't been as riled as those tied to mortgages, where growing defaults have prompted investors to shun mortgage-backed securities and sent several dozen mortgage companies into bankruptcy.

Because credit cards have not seen substantial increases in delinquencies, "we haven't seen deterioration in the performance in credit card asset-backed securities," said Cynthia Ullrich, a senior director in Fitch Ratings' asset-backed securities group.

Still, investors concerned about mortgage problems have demanded a slightly higher return on securities backed by credit card receivables to make up for a higher perceived risk, according to Wall Street analysts.

Those higher costs in the secondary market are being passed on to consumers, Chessen says, noting that financial institutions have the tools to raise rates for riskier customers while holding them down for those with better credit scores.

Arnold, of, said one card issuer had held the rate on its cards at 10.99% for customers with the best credit ratings, while those with poorer ratings would be paying interest of 18.99%, up from 17.99% just a few weeks ago.

"In terms of rates, the fallout from the sub-prime mortgage market has financial institutions practicing risk-based pricing," he said.

Although JPMorgan Chase's Dimon discussed the steps his bank was taking, other credit card issuers were unwilling to reveal their credit terms.

Bank of America Corp. in Charlotte, N.C., said it "maintained consistent underwriting standards" and evaluated each credit application on the individual's merits.

USAA in San Antonio said it was monitoring the market "and will make changes if necessary," and Discover Financial Services said delinquency rates remained at a record low, so it hadn't changed business practices.

Arnold recommends that consumers protect themselves against unpleasant surprises such as higher rates and shrinking credit lines. Although many consumers don't even glance at the small print in credit card offers and their monthly statements, he suggests a careful reading of everything a card issuer or lender sends.

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