Friday, February 8, 2008

Credit-Card Pinch Sap Consumer Spending

--America's love affair with credit cards may be headed for the rocks. --Credit-card delinquencies are rising across the nation, a sign that some Americans are at the end of their rope financially. And these mounting delinquencies, in turn, have prompted banks to tighten lending standards, keeping people who have maxed out their cards from finding new sources of credit. --The result could be a sharp pullback in consumer spending that would further weaken the slowing U.S. economy. --Such a pullback may already be taking shape. Yesterday, the Federal Reserve reported an abrupt slowdown in consumers' credit-card borrowings. In December, Americans had $944 billion in total revolving debt, most of it on credit cards, a seasonally adjusted annualized increase of 2.7%. That was off sharply from seasonally adjusted growth rates of 13.7% in November and 11.1% in October. And it reflects the volatility in consumers' spending habits as economic growth sputters. --Sinking home prices have made it much harder to convert home equity into cash for living expenses. At the same time, plastic has pushed into every corner of American life, making new inroads that worry some economists and card issuers. --In past economic downturns, Americans used credit cards mainly for discretionary purchases, such as furniture, appliances and jewelry. Now, however, many of them regularly whip out plastic to pay for groceries, gasoline and other everyday necessities. Credit-card issuers won't disclose exact figures, but they say it is evident that a growing percentage of card volume is for basic purchases. Many issuers even dole out extra rewards for such transactions. --Evidence is mounting that the plastic-fueled spending spree won't last. In December, an average of 7.6% of credit-card loans were either at least 60 days delinquent or had gone into default, up from 6.4% a year earlier, according to research firm RiskMetrics Group. The analysis includes a broad swath of more than $200 billion of credit-card loans that are sold off to investors by major card issuers like Citigroup Inc., Capital One Financial Corp., American Express Co. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. --Card delinquencies are ticking up from historically low levels, but the trend is sending shudders through lenders already reeling from the subprime-mortgage tumult. As a result, leery card issuers are bulking up their reserves against future card-related losses -- and getting so much tougher on borrowers that some consumer are reining in overall spending. --Much of the card industry's growth has come from debit cards, which aren't included in the government's revolving-credit data because they immediately draw funds out of purchaser's checking account. Still, credit-card portfolios managed by card-issuing banks are growing at single-digit percentage rates each year as consumers put more small payments and everyday purchases on their cards.

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