Bad Times for Credit Cards

On Monday the New York Times ran a piece that, in a better world, would not have been news. Turns out that credit card companies are often willing to settle delinquent accounts for less than what is owed. Golly.

The article did contain an important tip for those in serious credit card trouble. When the card issuer calls you out of the blue and offers to let you C Cards 2 (Andres Rueda) settle the whole thing for 80 cents on the dollar, you should, without hesitation or reflection, say no. Then hang up. They’re not calling because they think you’ll pay them eventually. That 80% is what we Wall Street types call a “first offer”.

The Times piece tells the story of a guy who got a call like this, said no thanks, and then when the company called back a few weeks later, offered them 50%.

It’s a deal, the account representative immediately said, not even bothering to check with a supervisor.

Where I come from, the account rep would be considered very rude. Proper etiquette would have been to put the customer on hold for thirty seconds while pretending to beg a supervisor to okay the deal. At the very least, the rep could have heaved a big sigh and mentioned something about how will probably be fired for this.

Things are grim in credit card land. A few years ago card companies could sell delinquent accounts to collection agencies for 15 cents on the dollar. That may sound like a pittance, but things being what they are today, they can’t even get that anymore. According to the article, 5 cents on the dollar is now the going rate for bad accounts. And the number of those accounts is growing.

So, obviously, there is a groundswell of sympathy credit card companies and a feeling that they need the sort of help that the government gave AIG, GM and Chrysler, lest this key part of our economy be further damaged. Yeah, right. Credit card companies are like lawyers and used car salesmen. No matter the circumstance, popular perception has a black hat permanently affixed to their heads. Washington even used the current state of things to triumphantly enact a new set of restrictions on what the card companies could do.

Today’s Wall Street Journal has another article on credit cards, this one about the widespread rage that consumers have against them. Apparently, YouTube is filling with videos of folks destroying their cards in spectacular ways, inspired, at least in part, by our old friend Dave Ramsey.

So, in keeping with Ramsey’s views, are these angry consumers up in arms about the ease with which you can get credit and run up debt? Well, not exactly. They have some complaints about interest rates on existing debt going up. But the big outrage, for which the article provided four separate examples, is card companies reducing credit lines.

In other words, the movement isn’t consumers reducing their use of cards out of outrage against card companies. It is consumers’ outrage that the companies have forced them to reduce their use of cards.

And of course the companies have been reducing credit lines. What with one thing and another, credit cards have become radically less profitable for their issuers than they were just a little while ago and it doesn’t look like things will get better any time soon.

But consumers, who take daily use of cards for granted while complaining bitterly about how awful they are, can’t imagine why the companies could possibly be less interested in lending them more money all of a sudden.  They’re like drunks angry the bartender has cut them off. And that he charged so much for a shot of whiskey when he was serving. And what happened to the free peanuts? I better call my congressman.

[Photo: Andres Rueda]


  • By Chris, June 18, 2009 @ 1:47 pm

    The key fuss with credit lines is that issuers use your % of the line used as a means of evaluating risk. I have had an issuer cut my line (apparently afraid I would utilize the full line they gave me). A month later, they jacked up my rate because I was using such a high proportion of my credit line. The balance had gone down. The real change was in the denominator. They “made” me more risky by their own actions on their own scale.

  • By Wapners Court, June 18, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

    You must have missed it. The lord came down from heaven and declared: ” all people will have unlimited access to cheap credit regardless of their credit rating.”

    Oh, that never happened? Note to consumer advocates: if you are going to make absurd fantasyland wishes for something, why not shoot for free icecream and winning lottery tickets for all US citizens? Peace in the Middle East? Free hookers? 1-day work weeks? Something fun.

  • By ryan, June 18, 2009 @ 2:18 pm

    Most of what is in the media is simply an amplification of the shrill and stupid.

  • By GPR, June 18, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    In other words, the movement isn’t consumers reducing their use of cards out of outrage against card companies. It is consumers’ outrage that the companies have forced them to reduce their use of cards.

    Is this a statistically valid point, or based solely on the number of examples used in the WSJ article? I hate to get all curmudgeonly on your research….

  • By kate h, June 18, 2009 @ 3:16 pm

    I accidentally timed the market just right. I paid off all my credit cards with my tax refund in 2007. That topped off almost 10 years of getting out of debt and then back in and then back out. Barring some unforeseen unfortunate event, I plan to never carry a balance on a credit card again. I’ve used credit cards for the past two years, and pay in full every month. I watch others people freak out about their rates, balances, and ratings and I feel so relieved that I am in the clear!

  • By Kosmo @ The Casual Observer, June 18, 2009 @ 3:27 pm

    That’s an interesting reaction to the 80% settlement offer.

    We run a lot of things (basically, everything that we can) through our credit cards, in order to get the cashback bonuses (5% off gas purchases? that really ads up) but we pay off every cent each month.

  • By SJ, June 18, 2009 @ 5:07 pm

    I haven’t noticed the credit crunch. In fact one of my cc’s expanded my credit line lol…

    The end analogy is great. This is just the usual complaint of spoiledness… i want all the benefits but none of the costs!

  • By Ron, June 20, 2009 @ 5:46 pm

    “the movement isn’t consumers reducing their use of cards out of outrage against card companies. It is consumers’ outrage that the companies have forced them to reduce their use of cards.”

    Nailed it.

  • By kitty, June 20, 2009 @ 11:38 pm

    It is everyone’s god given right to have access to cheap credit. The banks should all work like charities and give out the money for free. At least this is what some consumers want.

    Nobody cut my credit limits, by the way, and I still get plenty of credit card offers, even 0% offers.

    The thing about the new regulations though is that they are likely to a) make it more difficult for the people who complain most to get credit cards in future b) reduce credit limits further c) have higher starting interest rates and fewer or no promotional offers d) reduce benefits and maybe introduce charges for those of us who pay off our credit card bills in full. Just a totally ignorant opinion.

    This is a great blog by the way. I found it some months ago by clicking on a particularly good post, then lost it again.

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  1. Blog » Bad Times for Credit Cards | Bad Money Advice — June 19, 2009 @ 4:56 am

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