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DAVID LAZARUS / CONSUMER CONFIDENTIAL

Banks' credit card bluster rings hollow

May 07, 2008|DAVID LAZARUS

I just love it when the credit card industry threatens to take its toys and go home.

That, in effect, was what card issuers said in response to the announcement by federal regulators last week that they planned to crack down on some of the industry's more consumer-unfriendly practices.

To increase fairness, the Federal Reserve and two other agencies would, among other things, require card issuers to mail out statements at least 21 days before a payment's due date and prohibit issuers from applying partial payments only to balances with the lowest interest rates -- thus leaving costlier, higher-rate balances intact.

Edward Yingling, president of the American Bankers Assn., said in a statement that the Fed's proposals represent "an unprecedented regulatory intrusion into marketplace pricing and product offerings."

He said the measures would "result in less competition, higher consumer prices, fewer consumer choices and reduced consumer access to credit cards."

In other words, if the industry had to play by the proposed rules, it wouldn't be able to offer as much plastic to as many people.

Nonsense. No amount of regulation has ever resulted in card issuers scaling back their offerings. More than 5 billion solicitations were mailed to U.S. households last year alone.

But if banks suddenly decided not to make plastic as readily available to people with spotty credit records, fine. All things considered, that would probably be a good thing.

Just ask Victoria Ramirez. The San Jose elementary school teacher once had as much as $45,000 in debt on six different cards.

Now she and her husband have whittled that down to a balance of about $10,000 on a single card.

Ramirez, 37, said card issuers make it all too easy to get into trouble.

"They loan you a big amount of money that you can't take care of," she said.

This isn't so different from what's happening in the housing market. One reason so many people are in danger of losing their homes right now is because banks handed out high-risk loans to folks who had no business getting deep into debt.

To be sure, many such loan recipients deserve a share of the blame for being so reckless with their personal finances. But they wouldn't have gotten into trouble without the willing complicity of lenders, which encouraged virtually all home buyers to take the plunge, regardless of their ability to repay loans.

According to the Fed, Americans are now carrying $951.7 billion in revolving credit card debt, up 5.9% from a year ago. The average household with credit card debt runs a balance of about $8,000.

We could use a little tough love. Efforts to teach people to be more debt-savvy clearly haven't worked out. (The banking industry's "education" programs have always struck me as being much like the tobacco industry's programs to discourage smoking. Somehow they just don't seem sincere.)

Yingling of the American Bankers Assn. said he found the Fed's proposed safeguards "particularly perplexing" because they'd result in "a reduction in credit availability at the very time the Fed is working to increase access to credit in the marketplace."

Perhaps he'd be less perplexed if he understood that the Fed isn't seeking a credit free-for-all out there. What it wants, and what consumers should have, is access to the credit that they're qualified to handle.

Of course, that's not what the banking industry is about. Lenders collected a record $18.1 billion in credit card penalty fees last year, up 69% from 2003, according to consulting firm R.K. Hammer Investment Bankers in Thousand Oaks.

Banks aren't about to cut back on credit for anyone. Why? Because they don't care whether consumers can handle debt. Cynical as it may be to say, they're happiest when we can't.

Yingling said lenders will be busy submitting comments to the Fed, the Office of Thrift Supervision and the National Credit Union Administration about their proposed measures over the next couple of months.

People who want to balance the equation can do so by visiting the Fed's website at federalreserve.gov. Follow the links to the comment form for Regulation AA.

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Windfall oil profits

Speaking of government roles in business, I received nearly 200 e-mails in response to Sunday's column on whether a windfall profits tax would be a good idea for the big-bucks-earning oil industry.

Much of the response focused on the headline -- "Levy is needed on oil profit windfalls" -- which didn't exactly jibe with my conclusion in the column that "a windfall profits tax isn't the solution" (although I advocated some sort of socially responsible levy that could be applied to alternative energy and public transportation).

Many readers pointed out that the industry's 8% profit margin isn't out of line with what other businesses pull down. For example, Bennett Pridgen wrote to say this amount "is not an unreasonable company profit and is expected by stockholders."

In fact, the oil industry is fond of citing its relatively benign profit margin when consumers bellyache about high pump prices. But when it comes to Wall Street, the industry prefers to be judged by its return on equity, a measure of how well companies use capital from investors.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the oil industry had a very healthy average return on equity last year of almost 23%. Exxon Mobil, the world's largest oil company, had a return on equity of 33.4%. Chevron's return on equity was 24.2%.

By comparison, investor darling Google had a return on equity of just 21.1%.

That's not to say all this money represents a windfall. But it's a lot of dough.

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Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays.

Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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