American Express offers $300 a pop to make cardholders disappear

For years, credit card companies have been offering premiums to entice customers to sign up. From frisbees and t-shirts to gift cards and teaser rates, the general theory seems to have been that anything that gets a borrower to sign on the dotted line is money well spent. Recently, however, a few companies have begun reversing the trend.

This week, American Express (AXP) began offering many of its cardholders a $300 gift card in return for closing their accounts. Basically targeting high-balance, low-activity accounts, the new program gives members until the end of April to pay off their balances. If they do so, they will receive the free gift cards.

Analysts have noted that the program could benefit both American Express and its customers. By clearing out customers who are in danger of defaulting, the company reduces its risk and possibly preempts debt recovery costs. For customers, it offers an opportunity for some quick cash and a method that could help them maintain a good credit rating.

Amex's program reflects a growing nationwide trend toward buying off liabilities. For example, last fall, National City Bank of Cleveland, Ohio, began offering customers a $200 incentive for closing their home equity lines of credit.

As home values fell, numerous lenders began reducing or closing home equity lines. Needless to say, this soured relations with customers; National City Bank soon realized that, regardless of whether or not customers were actually using credit lines, they didn't want to have them closed. Rather than give up on their credit line reductions, the bank chose another tack: to improve relations, they began offering incentives to convince users to voluntarily close or reduce their lines of credit.

Although unusual, NCB's program offered some significant benefits. Not only did it potentially improve the company's overall balance sheet, but the program also made the debt more attractive in the event that the bank chose to sell it. In the short term, it also helped maintain positive relations with borrowers.

The ultimate liability-reduction premiums are probably the ones that US automakers have been offering their employees for the last few years. Beginning in 2005, General Motors and Chrysler have offered unionized workers lavish buyout packages worth up to $140,000. A $100,000 package convinced 5,000 Chrysler employees to leave in November; this month, the Chrysler package is set at between $75,000 and $100,000. GM, by comparison, is offering a $45,000 buyout deal.

Under the terms of a 2007 contract, Chrysler's latest buyout, which expires tomorrow, will enable the automaker to hire new employees at $14 per hour. This new rate is roughly half of what the current workers are making. Given that the buyout offer has been extended to nearly all of Chrysler's 62,000 hourly workers, it could massively lower the production costs for the beleaguered company. It remains to be seen, however, if it's enough to make $100,000 per employee a worthwhile expense!
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