Consumers are finding that bank loans are cheaper today than at any time in the last eight years.
That is, unless they borrow on their credit cards. Holders of bank credit cards, with a few exceptions, are paying the same stratospheric rates they were paying five years ago -- when banks were paying twice as much interest on deposits as they are today.
Bankers say credit card lending is different than most other types of loans and the high rates are justified. But critics contend that rates are higher than they should be and that if consumers resisted the rates, banks would lower them.
Banks are making a handsome profit on their credit card operations, although they lost money on the business early in the decade.
Last year, the banking industry earned a healthy 5.37 percent profit on its outstanding credit card loans, according to an analysis by Spencer Nilson, publisher of an industry newsletter.
On all their lending, banks made about 1 percent, according to a study recently released by Rep. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
In part, banks today are making up for big losses they ran up in their credit card operations during the early 1980s, according to Leo Mullin, executive vice president of First National Bank of Chicago, one of the nation's biggest bank credit card issuers. "Out of the last five years, two years have been good, three years have been mediocre to bad," Mullin said.
At many banks, especially the big, so-called money-center banks, there is a renewed awareness of consumers both as borrowers and as lenders because the corporate and international lending business has fallen on hard times.
The aggressive desire to garner consumer business can be seen in various banks' "loan sales" or "rate wars" in many parts of the country.
Car loans for less than 10 percent are being offered by banks, in part in response to the cut-rate financing automobile companies are providing to stimulate lagging car sales. Home improvement loans have dropped to the 11 percent to 14 percent range. Loans backed by the equity in a borrower's home often carry interest charges at, or a point or two above, the 8.5 percent prime rate.
But the interest rate on bank credit cards -- most of them Visa and MasterCard -- is 19.8 percent at most of the biggest national issuers, although Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. lowered its rate to 17.8 percent late last year. Many regional issuers never went much above 18 percent, although a number of California banks charge 21 percent.
A few banks and savings and loan associations offer lower rates. But most of them -- like Chevy Chase Savings and Loan Asociation in suburban Maryland, which offers 14 percent -- are appealing to a local, rather than national, audience. Rival banks say they have seen little indication they are losing accounts to Chevy Chase because of its lower rates.
There have been a few, unsuccesful attempts in Congress to legislate a ceiling on credit card interest charges. And several groups, including the Consumer Federation of America, have lobbied for lower rates. CFA Executive Director Stephen Brobeck complains that millions of Americans are "financially illiterate" and don't know there are cheaper places to borrow. "Banks are charging what the traffic will bear and, because of the illiteracy, it will bear a lot," he said in a recent interview.
Bankers agree that most consumers seem indifferent to high credit card rates.
But Charles Walsh, senior vice president of Manufacturers Hanover, said that since the bank lowered its interest rate from 19.8 percent to 17.8 percent last fall, the outstanding balances on its credit card operation has grown 22 percent and the number of accounts has grown by more than 800,000.
How much of Manufacturers' growth was due to the reduced rate and how much was due to an aggressive soliciting campaign is unclear, bankers said.
"Credit card rates will not come down substantially until consumers demand it," according to the president of one local bank. He acknowledged he is out of step with most of his colleagues because he believes credit card rates are too high.
"I'll admit, I'm a little baffled by consumer insensitivity to credit card rates," said an economist for a federal bank regulatory agency.
Interest rates make little difference to the roughly one-third of bank card holders who use the card for convenience only, paying off their accounts in full each month and incurring no interest charges.
But even those who pay interest charges do not seem deterred by rates. Credit card balances have been the fastest-growing form of consumer credit in recent years.
Last year, there were 105 million credit card accounts, nearly 76 million of them active, at U.S. banks and savings and loan associations. The outstanding balances on those accounts averaged $67.2 billion.
Jerry Kraft, senior vice president of the First National Bank of Atlanta, said consumers are quite willing to pay the going rate on credit cards because of the convenience credit cards offer -- including the option of paying off the credit card bill in full or spacing out payments over a number of months.
"When the customer makes a charge at a merchant, that customer doesn't know if it will be a credit or a cash purchase. He or she makes that decision six weeks later when the credit card bill is due," Kraft said. Furthermore, many banks offer credit card customers the ability to write a check on their line of credit -- enabling them to pay bills they cannot charge on their cards -- as well as the right to get cash advances against their line of credit, often from automatic teller machines.
Bankers say it is unfair to compare interest rates on credit card loans to those charged on most other loans because the costs involved in credit card operations are vastly different than those involved in most other consumer lending:
*Credit card loans are unsecured, unlike a car loan or a home improvement loan, said Walsh of Manufacturers Hanover. If a borrower defaults on a car loan, the bank can repossess the vehicle and recover all or most of the outstanding balance on the loan. The bank has no such recourse on credit card purchases. The national average for credit card losses is about 2.2 percent, but losses at some banks are equivalent to 3 percent of the outstanding balances.
*There are far more fraud losses in credit card lending than in other forms of lending. Nearly 1 percent of all credit card charges is lost to fraud. Credit card lending involves far higher administrative and processing costs than most loans, according to Mullin of First Chicago. Most of the transactions are small, as are the outstanding balances.
*The cost of funds is a far smaller percentage of the overall cost of making a credit card loan than it is for other types of consumer loans. On a car loan, between 80 and 90 percent of the interest charged the borrower represents the cost of the money to the bank, according to an economist for a federal bank regulatory agency. On credit card lending, the cost of funds represents less than 50 percent of the total cost -- from paper processing to fraud losses.
*The interest rate charged on cards is not what the bank actually earns. Because many credit card users pay off their balance in full each month and never incur an interest fee, the bank earns no interest on their accounts. Even though a bank pays a merchant the day after the credit card slip is deposited, the bank bills the credit card user once a month. Most banks then give the customer a grace period, usually about 25 days, to pay the bill in full before imposing an interest charge.
Several years ago, when banks were losing money on credit card operations, they began to impose annual fees for all users. Those fees average about $18 an account. Although the fees have reduced the losses to banks on customers who pay in full each month, banks lose about $30 a year per card on these convenience customers, according to The Nilson Report.
"From the day we pay the merchant, we are making the customer a loan," according to one banker. The Nilson Report estimates that a bank that charges credit card customers 18 percent earns an effective rate of about 15.19 percent on its outstanding balances because of customers who pay in full every month. On other loans, the interest rate charged is the interest rate received.
Kraft of First Atlanta said that the cost of the deposits banks use to fund their credit card loans has not fallen as fast or as far as short-term interest rates such as the overnight federal funds rate.
The federal funds rate is about 6.5 percent. The cost of funding credit card operations is as high as 10 percent at some banks.
Kraft said that most banks fund their credit card operations with longer-term consumer certificates of deposit, many of which were sold two or three years ago at far higher rates than today. Most consumers who do not pay off their loans immediately take about 18 months to two years.
However, he said, as older, higher-rate certificates mature and are replaced with lower-yielding certificates, the cost of funding will come down. Similarly, Kraft said, when short-term interest rates climbed above 20 percent early in the decade, banks were able to fund their credit card operations for less because of the long-term nature of the deposits.
Alan Fox of the CFA said banks are right when they say that credit card interest charges ought to be higher than the rates they charge borrowers on secured loans such as those for automobiles or home improvements.
But Fox said that 15 or 16 percent would be a far more defensible rate than the 19.8 percent nearly all money-center banks -- except Manufacturers Hanover -- charge on their credit card operations.
One banker, who asked not to be identified, said creditworthy consumers are paying higher rates in part because many big banks are not careful enough when they issue cards. The banker said credit losses on his bank's card loans are less than 1 percent -- only one-third of what some banks lose.
But another banker said that, if standards were tightened, a large number of lower-income customers would be unable to get credit cards.
Although many bankers defend the high credit card interest charges as justifiable -- both because of the high costs of the operation and to make up for losses and low profits earlier in the decade -- they acknowledge the difficulty in defending the rates when other rates are falling and credit card operations are profitable.
A spokesman for Bank of America, the nation's second-biggest bank and a major credit card issuer, declined to provide an executive to talk on the record about the issue. Bank of America credit cards carry a 19.8 percent interest rate.
"The best solution would be for consumers to shop around," said a banker. "If enough customers desert the higher-charging banks for those that already are offering lower rates, then credit card charges will come down."