After years of getting Americans hooked on credit, card companies are slashing limits and weaning themselves off all but the safest customers
Terry Mazzera has worked to keep her credit score above 730, paying bills on time, sending in more than the minimum credit-card payment each month, and keeping a comfortable gap between her balance and credit limit.
But a couple of weeks ago, the 62-year-old Hercules (Calif.) resident got a letter from a credit-card company saying that her limit had been cut from $9,500 to $6,500—just about $400 above the amount she owed on the card. The primary reason: She was a late on a payment on a separate department store card.
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Her debt-to-limit ratio on the card suddenly zoomed up from 64% to 94%, and she expects her credit score will be damaged. The ratio is a key component that credit bureaus use to determine creditworthiness. "It's not right," said Mazzera, a project assistant at a construction company. "I worked very hard to keep my credit."
Mazzera is part of a growing number of Americans who are seeing their credit limits slashed. Even people with good jobs, low balances, and solid payment histories could be seeing their credit scores slip through no fault of their own. About 16% of customers had their limits reduced between April 2008 and October 2008, according to a recent study by Minneapolis-based FICO, which developed the Fair Isaac scoring model used by credit bureaus to evaluate default risk.
But only a fraction of those customers would be considered risky. Jittery banks, eager to reduce potential risk, appear to be targeting many borrowers with low-balance or inactive accounts. About 11% of customers who saw their limits cut had no "risk triggers" during that period and generally had very high credit scores. Risk triggers include late payments, excessive cash advances, check bouncing, collecting unemployment, or having a mortgage in an area where property values are plummeting.
Credit Scores at Risk
"This is blindsiding people," said Evan Hendricks, author of Credit Scores & Credit Reports (Atlas Books). "For a significant portion of people having their credit scores go down, it had nothing to do with what they did. This is the system making credit scores go down. This is a new thing in history."
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There's no way to know how many good credit scores are being lowered by the credit limit cuts. FICO said its study showed that borrowers whose available credit was cut did not see a change to their median FICO score, which remained at 770. But the survey ended in October 2008, just as the financial crisis was beginning. It's unclear what has happened since then.
Even a small FICO score drop in today's environment of tight credit can make the difference in getting a mortgage, a car loan, or another credit card, and it can have an impact on the interest rate a borrower pays. The FICO score ranges from 300 to 850 and the best mortgage rates are generally given to borrowers who have at least about 730.
The credit limit reductions are confusing to customers because many borrowers have credit cards so that "when a rainy day comes along they can use it," said Linda Sherry, spokeswoman for Consumer Action, a San Francisco-based nonprofit consumer education and advocacy group.
"It's hard for consumers to understand because before the credit-card companies were almost pushing credit," Sherry said. "Now they're taking it back, even for people who were doing nothing wrong."
Rising Default Rates
Banks are cutting limits in the face of a deteriorating economy. U.S. credit-card default rates reached record highs in May, near or even above 10% for Bank of America, American Express, Citigroup, and Capital One, according to Reuters. The worsening unemployment situation is causing banks to worry that even good customers could quickly become risky customers. As a result, the companies are preemptively slashing credit lines, especially those that aren't being used.
"The single biggest indicator of a person's ability to repay is whether they have a job, and economists say unemployment could hit 10%," said Peter Garuccio, spokesman for the American Bankers Assn. "Issuers say their losses track closely with unemployment and they have to minimize exposure."
Garuccio said some customers who think they're excellent customers might be riskier than they think. Somebody who just pays the minimum payment each month isn't the ideal customer, he said. "Somebody who is paying more than the minimum and not carrying a balance is a great customer."
From Ideal Customer to Liability
Curtis Arnold, founder of Cardratings.com, said the same customers that banks were aggressively soliciting are now making them nervous.
"The irony of this is that somebody who carried a balance was their [the banks'] bread-and-butter customer," Arnold said. "Now that same customer is a threat."
The banks might be tightening available credit in reaction to new federal legislation, taking effect in the middle of next year, that will restrict how credit-card companies raise rates. Among the other rules designed to benefit customers, banks will only be able to hike rates on existing balances if a customer is 60 days late on a payment, and it must provide 45 days' advance notice before increasing rates.
It pays in this environment to keep the balance-to-limit ratio below a third and keep a close eye on any changes to credit reports, experts say. Author Hendricks suggests consumers try to pay down balances or convince lenders to restore limits. Borrowers can access a free credit report once a year from each of the three credit bureaus at www.annualcreditreport.com. On Myfico.com, customers can buy their TransUnion and Equifax FICO scores for $15.95 each. Experian sells reports and scores on Experian.com.
Gopal writes about real estate for BusinessWeek in New York.