Fed's Rate Cuts Bring No Relief For Consumers' Credit Card Bills

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) last week introduced a bill to restrict fees and rate changes that credit card companies could impose.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) last week introduced a bill to restrict fees and rate changes that credit card companies could impose. (By Carol T. Powers -- Bloomberg News)
By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 11, 2008

The Federal Reserve's dramatic rate cuts were expected to make it cheaper for consumers to use credit cards. But credit card interest rates remain high and in many cases have even climbed.

Bruised by a rise in foreclosures, banks have been reluctant to lower rates for cardholders who have missed payments or had their credit scores slip, analysts and industry watchdogs said. Yet even some cardholders who pay on time have not benefited from the Federal Reserve's recent actions, as banks raise rates and fees to make up for losses in their mortgage departments, analysts said.

"Not everyone is going to get a rate decrease," said Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a Washington-based consumer advocacy organization. "People presume that because the Fed lowers rates, the banks will."

The increases have perplexed customers such as Richard Davis, an insurance agent who lives in Fairfax County who said the annual percentage rate on his Chase Business Visa card went from 8 percent to 24 percent in December, three months after the Fed's first rate cut. "That just floored me," he said.

Card companies say they are exercising their right to protect themselves from risky borrowers and market conditions. But their actions have attracted the attention of Congress, which is considering several bills that would crack down on lending practices.

Consumer advocates and analysts worry that higher interest rates will make it more difficult for borrowers to pay down their debt, which could slow consumer spending and further weaken the economy. Last week, the Federal Reserve reported that borrowing slowed in December, with revolving debt totaling $944 billion, most of it on credit cards. That was a seasonally adjusted annualized increase of 2.7 percent, down significantly from a growth rate of 13.7 percent in November.

The subprime mortgage meltdown has spilled into the credit card industry in other ways. Banks have reported steep write-offs related to the mortgage mess, and their stock prices have plummeted. "Credit cards historically have been a very profitable segment for the banking industry, so what they're doing is trying to squeeze customers as much as they can, particularly for accounts they don't see as profitable or as high risk," said Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, an independent consumer resource on credit cards.

Bank of America, for instance, notified some customers recently that their rates would increase as a result of a periodic review of their credit risk. Chase late last year increased the rate paid by new customers of its Freedom card. Bank of America and Chase are also among some banks that have increased ATM fees for other banks' customers to as much as $3 per visit. Capital One has raised its cash-advance fee for new customers from 19 percent to 23 percent.

Davis, the insurance agent, said he called Chase when his rate skyrocketed on his balance of $4,500, which he said he was paying more than the minimum on time every month. Davis was told that he should have received a letter giving him the option to close the account if he did not want the new rate, he said. He did not recall seeing that letter. He wrote to the bank requesting that his previous rate be restored. Last month, he said, he received a letter from Chase notifying him that the account was closed. "It was either that or pay the higher APR," he said. "You gotta do what you gotta do."

Jessica Hougentogler, a spokeswoman for Chase card services, said she could not comment on specific cases but that "there are a few reasons why a customer may see an increase in their rate including, a violation of the terms of their . . . agreement, making a late payment, exceeding their credit limit, paying with insufficient funds."

Davis said he did not commit any such violations.

Congress has been examining other industry practices such as increasing cardholders' rates for making late payments to other creditors or decreasing their limits, which hurts their credit scores by increasing the percentage of the available credit they have used.

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