The Federal Reserve Board yesterday in effect told millions of charge account customers to either stop using their credit cards or face higher monthly payments.
The board voted to override state consumer credit laws and let lenders raise the payments on existing charge accounts if they give customers 30 days notice.
Consumers will have the right to pay off their present balances under the old terms, but only if they stop using their credit cards. By using the card again, the consumer will automatically agree to pay bigger payments and accept any other changes sought by the lender.
The new rules, effective immediately, are the latest step in the Federal Reserve's efforts to limit consumer credit and fight inflation.
For gasoline credit card holders, the Federal Reserve rules will supersede Department of Energy regulations that have frozen the terms of gasoline charge accounts since 1973. Under federal gasoline price controls, oil companies have been prohibited from changing their credit policies.
Energy Department officials yesterday said they have no objection to letting oil companies increase payments or tighten credit terms if it will help slow inflation.
The Fed also voted to give lenders an alternative method of calculating the base on which its credit controls are figured. The new procedure will allow some growth in consumer borrowing, but still is expecting to slow the growth rate.
The latest changes in the Federal Reserve's consumer credit controls were meant to answer a wide range of criticisms from both borrowers and lenders, but they were immediately denounced by consumer groups and their supporters in Congress.
Responding to the consumer criticism, Reps. Frank Anunzio (D-Ill.) and Bob Eckhardt (D-Tex.) both announced plans yesterday to introduce bills to overturn the Federal Reserve's action and prohibit changes in existing charge accounts.
The Consumer Federation of America, which urged the Fed to roll back much of its credit control program, said it was considering going to court to try to block the Fed action.
Federal Reserve Governor Nancy Teeters, who shepherded the changes through the board, said the rules were designed to make the Fed's credit controls uniform and fair.
At least 17 states have laws that restrict the power of lenders to change charge account terms or else require that consumers be given lengthy advance notice of any modifications.
Teeters told the board that enforcement of its controls program "is going to vary 50 different ways" if the agency did not override the state laws.
Some borrowers would have faced bigger payments immediately, and others would have had a full year before they would feel the effect of the Federal Reserve's crackdown on consumer borrowing if state laws had prevailed.
Teeters said the 30-day notice of changes in credit card payments gives consumers more protection than the laws of 33 states, which allow lenders to make changes first and tell the consumers later.
But 30 days is less notice than required by the federal Truth-in-Lending law. It says consumers must be told of changes 15 days before the start of the credit card billing cycle, which ususally takes another month. The Credit Control Act of 1969 gives the Fed broad powers to control borrowing, including overriding virtually all federal and state laws.
The Federal Reserve actions do not override state usery laws, which set the maximum interest rate on charge accounts. Most lenders are already charging what the law allows.
Yesterday's actions apparently will force some big credit card companies to change already announced plans to tighten credit terms. Several lenders had said they were raising the minimum monthly payments on accounts, and others changed the way they figure the interest, which also increases payments.
Now all lenders will have to give customers a month's notice of any changes.
But consumers will be able to avoid the bigger payments and pay off their accounts at the old rate only if they make no further credit purchases.
That provision, Teeters said, is meant to answer the complaint that family budgets could be broken if the monthly payments on several credit accounts were suddenly increased.
Under the new plan, lenders will have to program their computers to handle two sets of credit terms simultaneously. Big creditors can do that, but it may be a problem for smaller ones, Federal Reserve officials said.
Under the Fed's consumer credit crackdown, lenders are to try to hold the amount of credit they grant to what it was on March 14, when the program was announced. If lenders permit credit to increase, they must put 15 percent of the increase into a non-interest-bearing account in a Federal Reserve bank.
The other major changes voted yesterday gives lenders an alternative to the March 14 freeze date. Under a complex formula they will be allowed to let credit grow over last year's level early in the year, but then it must be reduced as the year progresses until last year's level is reached.
Lenders had asked for permission to seasonally adjust the credit limit, but the board refused. The new alternative still gives some allowance for seasonal changes in credit use, Fed officials said.