he associate director of Bankcard Holders of America was incorrectly identified in a Business section caption yesterday. Her name is Maria Kaplan.
In recent weeks, Simmons First National Bank of Pine Bluff, Ark., has been getting 500 applications a day from people all over the country seeking credit cards. The reason is that Simmons offers what may well be the best terms anywhere.
At a time when banks charge an average of 18.6 percent annual interest on the unpaid balance and retailers such as Sears Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward Co. charge 21 percent or more, Simmons charges just 12.5 percent. Its annual fee is $22.50, and it offers a grace period of 25 days after posting of bills before interest is due.
One of its new customers is Rep. Mario Biaggi (D-N.Y.), who was so "fed up" with the 19.8 percent average rate charged in his state that he switched his Visa account to Arkansas. He also decided to fight high rates by introducing a bill to cap credit card interest rates at five percentage points above the Federal Reserve's discount rate. That rate now stands at 7.5 percent.
According to the Nilson Report, a newsletter that follows the credit card industry, Americans charged $112.5 billion in goods and services last year on the bank credit cards, or $867 per cardholder. The annual interest charges amount to about $6 billion. Since interest rates declined, credit cards have been strong sources of profit for issuers, whose number and promotional activities have increased many-fold.
Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested yesterday that, if people applied for cards with lower interest rates before the Christmas shopping season, they could save hundreds of millions of dollars in interest costs. It also would send a message to banks and stores to lower their rates, which the congressman termed "usurious and outlandish." He is the author of a bill to impose a federal ceiling on rates at six points over the three-month Treasury bill rate, or 13.2 percent at current rates.
Schumer also issued a list of 30 banks with the lowest rates nationwide on Visa or MasterCard. These range from 10.5 to 17.9 percent. The list also includes annual fees and the length of the grace period, if any.
The best terms on Schumer's list are offered by Dominion Bank in Vienna: an interest rate of 10.5 percent, annual fee of $36 and a 30-day grace period. However, the offer is restricted to persons with a minimum income of $50,000 annually who are approved for a line of credit. The other area financial institutions included were Chevy Chase Savings and Loan, with a 14 percent interest rate, $20 annual fee, but no grace period; and Provident Bank of Maryland, with a 17.8 percent rate, $18 annual fee and 30-day grace period.
House legislation and a similar bill introduced by Sen. Paula Hawkins (R-Fla.) would limit interest rates but do not address annual fees or grace periods. Thus, a credit issuer could lower the interest rate but recoup profits by raising the fee or eliminating the grace period. The list does not analyze which is the best deal over all.
As a general rule, a cardholder who pays off the balance monthly and never incurs interest costs should seek a card with a grace period and the lowest annual fee, said Alan Fox of the Consumer Federation of America. The cardholder who makes installment payments on the balance should find the lowest interest rate, the lowest fee and not be concerned with the lack of a grace period.
Besides Arkansas, the most favorable terms are to be found in Texas. By law, the interest rate is currently 14.4 percent and annual fees are prohibited. However, there is no grace period, so cardholders could be subject to as much as one month's interest on any purchase.
Texas bankers are not looking for out-of-state accounts, said Joe Bowles, manager of the bank card center of Interfirst Bank of Dallas. In fact, he said the restrictions are prompting the big banks to move their card operations out of state. Interfirst plans to move to Delaware.
The Federal Reserve, the Chamber of Commerce and major bank organizations oppose credit card interest caps, saying that they could dry up competition.