You have to give VISA credit because, one way or another, that's what they are going to give you.
As the nation's consumers continue to go deeper and deeper into debt. In 1978, consumer installment credit totalled $275 billion, up from $230 billion the year before and $193 billion in 1976, credit card issuers are becoming more and more aggressive and creative in their attempts to get larger piece of the credit pie.
And VISA, once know as Bank Americard, is fast becoming the most aggresive of the lot. Like its biggest rival in the no-monthly-service-charge credit card business, Master Charge, VISA offers its card through financial institutions, which split their profits on the cards with VISA in exchange for worldwide marketing and the credit services that allow cardholders to charge in some 2.6 million establishments ranging from massage parlors to mail order houses.
How agressively is VISA going after that market? Well, some financial institutions now offer VISA cards that a consumer can use to pay off the monthly bill from his or her . . . er . . . VISA card.
If that sounds confusing, it's because it is. But, in fact, it is true. It is now possible for a customer to get a VISA card from, say, Guardian Federal Savings and Loan here in the Washington area, and use it to pay the monthly bill from his Citizen VISA card.
But the most interesting new developments in the credit card field involve the use of non-bank names on VISA cards and the ability of different VISA-issuing banks and companies to make special services available only to their VISA card holders.
Holders of certain VISA cards, for example, are able to borrow directly from their margin stock accounts or pay their automobile club dues. Others earn credits from VISA card purchases which they eventually can use to buy brand-name merchandise from a catalogue.
VISA began what it calls its non-member merchant identification program two years ago. That progam opened up the "blue band" -- the dark blue strip at the top of the VISA plastic card -- to the name of non-financial institutions. That meant that for the first time such entities as rent-a-car companies and retailers could issue VISA cards with their names on them, offering special services tailored to their customers. A local cooperating bank still handles all the billing and related paperwork, but the non-bank entity gets a piece of the profits made on the card, and the bank's name does not appear on the card.
The program is beginning to blossom. There are a dozen or so companies involves so far, ranging from a shopping center in Pompano Beach to an Ohio clothing retailer, a Seattle-based 176-store general merchandise retail chain, Merrill Lynch and regional divisions of nationwide rent-a-car companies such as Hertz and Budget.
The American Automobile Association, which expermented with offering its own card in the Washington area over the past six months, found the progam to be so successful that it is now expanding it nationwide.
"In our first mailing to about 50,000 of our members late last year, about 32 percent decided to take the card and have used it," said AAA spokesman Dick Hebert. "Now, we have more than 57,000 of our total 319,000 Washington area members with AAA-VISA cards.We are projecting 140,000 cards eventually."
Hebert said the AAA decided to issue its own VISA card as a service to members. "We see it as an opportunity to render additional services to our members," he said. "AAA-VISA card users can pay their dues and other AAA bills with the card, buy no-fee travelers checks, airline tickets and get emergency cash wherever they are." He said the card enables a local AAA club to offer nationwide services.
In addition, anyone who gets the AAA-VISA card also gets a service call Credit Gard, a plan that registers all of the member's credit cards. If his wallet is stolen, for example, a member merely calls a special 24-hour-a-day number and Credit Gard immediately notifies all of the credit card companies that their cards have been stolen, and then will wire up to $300 in emergency cash to the stranded cardholder.
Citibank, the world's largest commercial bank, also has become increasingly aggressive in marketing its VISA card. Citibank VISA cardholders, for example, earn something called "Citidollars" equal to 20 percent of the amount they charge on their cards. So a $100 purchase on the Citibank VISA card gives the user 20 Citidollars toward the purchase on the brand-name merchandise listed in a catalogue.
And Citibank cardholders also get discount coupons for local resturants, low-cost group insurance, and optional automobile club and credit-card-protection-plan memberships.
One of the more unorthodox uses of the credit card is an experimental program involving Merrill Lynch and the City National Bank of Columbus, Ohio. Under the plan, which is now offered in several states, holders of Merrill Lynch stock margin accounts in excess of $20,000 get a VISA card linked directly to their stock accounts.
That means that a Merrill Lynch account holder can use his card to buy anythinng, and instead of getting a monthly bill at home, the money for the purchase comes from the excess cash in the holder's stock margin account. If there isn't enough money in the account, the bill is paid anyway, and the account holder merely is given to cover the bill at whatever the Merrill Lynch interest rate is.
"It's the same as buying stock on margin," said City National's John McGuire. "You can borrow up to the margin amount of the account." That means that someone with $20,000 worth of stock has an automatic $20,000 line of credit on his or her Merrill Lynch VISA card.
McGuire said the program started slowly last year, "but now is expanding rather quickly." It is available in several states, including Ohio, Colorado, Georgia and California.
Guardian Federal Savings and Loan here is offering yet another new type of VISA card. Called the "12 percent solution" in the S&L's advertisements, the Guardian VISA card holders who stretch out bill payments over several months.
But there are catches. To qualify for a Guardian VISA card, one first must open a $1,000 minimum savings certificate account at the S&L. The interest earned on that certificate depends on the length of the deposit. The longer the certificate is held, the more interest it earns. And, the credit limit on the Guardian VISA card to 50 percent of the total money the cardholder has deposited.
Another disadvantage of the Guardian VISA plan is that the cardholder does not get the 30-day grace period most VISA cards allow before charging interest. Guardian VISA cardholders are charged 12 percent interest from the day of purchase.
But on the positive side, there is no minimum monthly payment. That means that a cardholder can delay paying anything almost indefinitely -- although the interest payments mount.
"If you pay your full bill every month, it dosen't pay to have our card," said Guardian's Jane Hamlet Rodgers. "But if you generally extend your payments over monthly installments, this is the plan for you. You can even pay your other VISA card bills with this card."
She said Guardian entered into the VISA competition "as a defensive measure, with competition between financial institutions growing as it is." A savings and loan in Dade Country, Fla., successfully launched a similar program last year, giving Guardian the idea for its plan.
These are just some of the new and more creative ways to go into hock, with the help of VISA and its 12,000 member institutions. VISA is quick to point out that it tries to avoid fostering competition between its own member institutions, but also notes that there is nothing wrong with having more than one VISA card and that each card carries its own independent line of credit.
With the help of its name charge and aggressive subsequent wordwide marketing effort, VISA became the largest credit card issuer [in terms of billings] in the world late in 1977, according to spokewoman Cynthia Chaddick. And it is a cinch that VISA dosen't have to go into debt.
In 1978, VISA cardholders bought $29.1 billion worth of goods and services around the world with their blue, white and gold card, 44.3 percent more than in 1977. And 1977 purchases were up 23.9 percent over 1975.
Things are not likely to get, better, according to the latest debt figures. The Federal Reserve Board reports that consumer installment credit increased by a seasonally adjusted$4 billion in April alone, largely because repayments and other liquidations declined by a record $1.23 billion. That means that people are paying their bills at a slower pace.
And with the price of oil continuing to soar, administration economists are predicting a recession that is likely to put a million more people out of work by 1980. And that means payments are likely to be later and later, giving credit issuers like VISA more and more interest income. CAPTION: Graph, Dollar Volume of Transaction, By Alice Kresse -- The Washington Post