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Credit card reform is mixed blessing
Annual fees, common until about 10 years ago, have made a comeback. During the final three months of last year, 43 percent of new offers for credit cards contained annual fees, versus 25 percent in the same period a year earlier, according to Mintel International, which tracks marketing data. Several banks also added these fees to existing accounts. One example: Many Citigroup customers will start paying a $60 annual fee on April 1.
— Created new fees and raised old ones.
These include a $1 processing fee for paper statements for cards issued by stores such as Victoria’s Secret and Ann Taylor. Another example is a $19 inactivity fee Fifth Third Bank now charges customers who haven’t used their card for six months.
Other banks increased existing fees. JPMorgan Chase, for instance raised the cost of balance transfers from one card to another to 5 percent of the transfer from 3 percent.
— Raised interest rates.
The average rate offered for a new card climbed to 13.6 percent last week, from 10.7 percent during the same week a year ago — meaning cardholders had to pay almost 30 percent more in interest, according to Bankrate.com.
For millions of other accounts, variable interest rates that can rise with the market replaced fixed rates. The Fed is expected to start raising its benchmark interest rates later this year, which would likely trigger an increase on those cards.
Besides making credit more expensive, banks also made it harder to get and keep credit cards. One big reason: Since the financial meltdown, many credit card issuers have been trying to reduce risk.
The number of Visa, MasterCard and American Express cards in circulation dropped 15 percent in 2009, for example. Rarely used cards were among the first cut off. Some cards linked to rewards programs for purchases like gasoline were likewise shut down.
Card companies also slashed credit limits for millions of accounts that remain open. About 40 percent of banks cut credit lines on existing accounts, according to the consultant TowerGroup, which estimated that such moves eliminated about $1 trillion in available credit. Much of that was unused.
Credit lines were frequently cut in regions most affected by the housing crisis and high unemployment, such as Florida and California, said Curt Beaudouin, a senior analyst at Moody’s Investors Service. “They’re not doing it willy nilly, they’re doing it systematically,” he said.
Companies are also making fewer solicitations. Mailed offers for new cards increased in the final three months of 2009 for the first time in two years, but there were only about 575 million. That’s about a third of the average number of quarterly offers from 2000 through 2008, according to Mintel.
Because the law makes credit cards less profitable, some subprime borrowers may not be able to get cards at all, at least for the next few years. There’s no fixed definition, but subprime borrowers generally have a FICO score below 660. For a good portion of this group, options may be limited to alternatives like PayPal and other electronic payment services, prepaid cards and payday lenders.
“Not everyone either deserves or should have an open-ended credit card,” said Roger C. Hochschild, chief operating officer of Discover Financial Services.
Joining those who won’t easily get cards: college students and others under age 21. The law strictly limits card marketing on campuses, ending giveaways like T-shirts and pizza Cards can only be granted to applicants who show they have the means to repay, or those who have a co-signer who can pay.
By Brahma Chellaney
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