Fed expects higher interest rates for consumer credit cards

Banks continue to take advantage of the waiting period for the CARD Act to lower credit limits, increase interest rates, and raise the minimum credit scores required for a credit card during the past three months, according to the quarterly survey released this week by the Federal Reserve.

This survey of loan officers also found 75% of banks that make credit card loans do not expect to be compliant with the provisions of the legislation until February 2010, the month these reforms go into effect.

The Fed conducted its survey in October and included loan officers at 57 U.S. banks and 23 U.S. branches of foreign banks. The survey asked loan officers about the impact of the Card Act and here's what they found:
  • 54% of banks have already increased or are planning to increase the credit card APR on their good (prime) customers.
  • 74% of banks have already or will increase APRs on those with poor credit (subprime).
  • Just over half of the banks have cut or will cut the credit limits of their credit card customers.
  • It's tougher to be approved for a credit card today. 47% of the loan officers said they have or will raise the credit score requirements for prime customers qualifying for a credit card. That number jumps to 53% for subprime customers.
  • Almost 40% of the banks had increased or will increase the annual fees on credit cards.
"This report confirms what credit card consumers have been experiencing all year: significant increases in their APR and substantial cuts in their credit limits," says Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com and author of The Credit Card Guidebook. "Issuers are trying to take these rate increases before the CARD Act provisions go into effect in February of 2010."

And this report only looks at past actions. We're still seeing changes on a weekly basis with Bank of America this week joining the ranks of credit card companies that are testing the addition of annual fees for some of its customers ranging from $29 to $99 after telling both Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) and Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) that it would stop re-pricing its existing credit card customer base.

"These new annual fees are unethical and contradictory to the promise the bank made to both lawmakers and to its customers," Odysseus Papadimitriou, CEO of Cardhub.com, wrote in his column at Walletblog.com. "Additionally, it is our belief that if Bank of America moves forward with its plans to raise membership fees on existing customers into 2010, it will be breaking the laws mandated under the CARD Act, which is slated to take effect in February of next year."

A Bank of America spokesperson told Papadimitriou that it's plans to increase annual fees on existing credit card accounts into 2010 would not be a violation of the CARD Act.

But Papadimitriou says that, "it is precisely because of the lack of explicit language in the bill that Bank of America could find itself in trouble. Whether or not the increase of annual fees on existing credit card accounts is illegal under the CARD Act will be left up to regulatory interpretation."

Papadimitriou believes that a 1996 Supreme Court case involving CitiBank (Smiley v. Citibank) proved that it was the opinion of the General Counsel of the FDIC that the term interest includes "numerical periodic rates ... annual fees, cash advance fees, and membership fees." Using this case, Papadimitriou contends that interest rates and annual fees are linked by regulatory definition.

Banks are continuing to play games to find ways around the CARD act. Congress made a huge mistake giving the banks so much time before the act took effect. With all the changes in interest rates, credit limit cuts and now the addition of annual fees, the banks will likely have made all the changes they want before the act takes effect and no one is stopping them. Can't the Federal Reserve, as the primary agency with consumer responsibility, act to protect consumers more quickly?

Lita Epstein has written more than 25 books including "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Improving Your Credit Score."
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