As every sector of the American economy lines up to sit on Congress’ lap and ask for an early Christmas present, things aren’t looking so good for American consumers. The visions dancing in their heads are not of sugar plums, but of unemployment, debt, and foreclosures. They’re wondering how they are going to pay for Christmas presents.Now we learn that Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson wants to save Christmas, by using taxpayer funds to bolster the credit card market. But before we shower taxpayer dollars indiscriminately at every down-at-heel, ragamuffin credit card lender, we should take a hard look at how they got themselves into so much trouble. Just throwing money at the credit card industry without requiring a systemic change in how it does business is merely asking for a repeat of the crisis.
The card industry’s business model is the heart of the problem and needs to change. Just as with subprime mortgages, the credit card business model creates a perverse incentive to lend indiscriminately and ignore delinquencies. Card issuers make money on every credit card transaction, regardless of whether the consumer ultimately pays a finance charge. The issuer receives around 2% of every transaction in a fee paid by the merchant (and passed on to all consumers in the form of higher prices). This fee is called the interchange fee. Card issuers will collect about $48 billion in interchange fees this year.
Because interchange is based on transaction volume, it creates an incentive for banks to issue as many cards as possible, regardless of the creditworthiness of the borrower. By creating a huge revenue stream unrelated to credit risk, interchange encourages card issuers to engage in reckless lending – and virtually every credit card loan is a “liar loan” with no income verification.
Banks have compounded this problem by shifting much of the loan risk to investors through securitization. When card issuers securitize credit card debt, they transform the credit card debt into a pool of assets used to pay off bonds. If the pool turns out not to be large enough, the bond investors take the loss. But if there’s a surplus, it goes to the card issuer.
While card issuers sell off most of the default risk, they keep any upside that comes from inflating their fees and rates. This is a heads I win, tails you lose situation and leads the banks to increase fees and interest rates on securitized debt. If the higher fees and rates cause more defaults, it is investors who bear the loss. If the higher fees result in more income, however, it is the card issuer, not the investors, who benefit.
In order to ensnare consumers in these fees, the card companies employ an ingenious system of billing tricks and traps. The hallmark of credit card pricing is obfuscation through disclosure. Card issuers have created enormously complex pricing structures, with multiple interest rates and fees. On top of this Byzantine structure, issuers then layer a filigree of abusive and deceptive billing practices, buried in reams of fine print.
Making the total cost of using a card utterly inscrutable allows issuers to play a game of three-card monte. Card issuers distract consumers from the total price of credit cards by emphasizing teaser interest rates and rewards programs. Meanwhile, issuers raise the back-end fees that consumers inevitably underestimate. Since the 1990s, overlimit fees have gone up over 115% and late fees over 160%. The rise of these fees has a 99% correlation with the growth of securitization. Because credit card pricing is opaque, the market cannot function efficiently, and consumers inevitably misuse credit cards to their detriment.
The tricks and traps in the fine print alone cost consumers over $12 billion last year, and this is only a fraction of the pain inflicted by the one-two punch of interchange fees and abusive interest rates
Most consumers spend responsibly and live within their means, but the banks have devised a system to encourage reckless overspending – and enrich themselves in the process. But it turns out the maze of tricks and traps even fooled the banks. As delinquencies rise, they are looking for a handout. Whether or not they get it, we need to learn something from this crisis and fix the credit card business model or we’ll all be in line for some special lumps of coal in a Christmas future.
ADAM J. LEVITIN teaches bankruptcy and commercial law at Georgetown Law