US President Barack Obama has called top executives from 14 large US credit-card companies to the White House for the second time today to protect consumers from the abusive practices and curtail the unique powers they wield in the world of retail lending.
Executives from Bank of America, American Express, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One Financial, Visa Inc and MasterCard will be among those trooping to the White house for the second dressing down today to the White House.
The Obama administration wants to create a level playing field in times of recession as the credit-card issuers are facing increasing accusations of fleecing and deceiving gullible consumer by charging high interest rates and changing terms midway arbitrarily, even on healthy accounts.
The Pew Charitable Trust along with the Sandler Foundation conducted a year-long survey till December 2008 to address the growing concerns about abuses in the credit-card industry.
It surveyed 20 consumer groups, credit-card providers, and all general-purpose consumer credit-cards offered online by the 12 largest issuers, which control over 88 per cent of outstanding credit-card debt in the US.
Their survey showed that between 2007 and 2008, credit-card issuers used their contractual powers to arbitrarily raise interest rates on nearly 70 million cardholders.
This resulted in cardholders paying out approximately an additional $10 billion in interest charges over and above the standard rates and fees.
With the US economy losing 650,000 jobs a month from November, credit-card debt of consumers increased heavily under extremely difficult conditions and by December 2008, consumer credit card-debt had exceeded $900 billion.
In the final three month of 2008, nearly 1.8 million Americans lost their jobs, thus adding to these high figures.
''With more and more Americans relying on their credit-cards to pay for everyday living expenses in this economy, we need to make sure the cards they're using are safe and fair,'' said Nick Bourke, manager of Pew's safe credit-cards project. ''Our research makes it clear that legislation is needed urgently to help borrowers protect their financial future.''
The Federal Reserve recently acted to ban, as unfair, deceptive and anti-competitive a number of practices of credit card iassuers, but this ban comes into force only in 2010 and until then an overwhelming majority of credit cardholders remain vulnerable to these practices, which can cost cardholders hundreds or thousands of dollars per year.
Since this ban will come into force only in 2010, credit card issuers are trying to make the most of it till then by raising interest rates, reducing credit limits and also canceling cards on the slightest of pretexts.
Several bills addressing unsafe practices have also been proposed in the Senate, including the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act, introduced by Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee chairman, Sen. Chris Dodd.
Both the House and Senate are now bringing out a credit card "bill of rights" to curtail the powers of credit-card issuers to raise interest rates and levy high penalties as well as require greater transparency.
The new bill, after having passed in the House of Representatives by 48 votes to 19 yesterday, is now in the hands of the Senate Financial Services Committee, whetre it may be slowed down. President Obama has to use all his guile to see that it is taken up as a top priority, as consumers have been facing a harrowing time dealing with the credit-card companies.
But critics caution and say that by putting excessive curbs on the credit-card industry may boomerang and will delay the economic recovery.
A White House official said the meeting was called for by the credit-card companies to present their views and the official said that as part of the reaching out to the business community, the Obama administration has called in nearly all the major credit-card issuers for the discussion.
The official also mentioned that the President understands that credit-cards are a critical source of liquidity and can be a last line of credit during hard economic times.
Austan Goolsbee, one of Obama's key economic advisers, said on the MSNBC network, "The president has for a long time been highly concerned about deceptive practices, lack of transparency with credit-card companies, where they are turning penalty fees into a business model. And you know, the print is so small you can't read it, you need a law degree."
During his election campaign in Edinburg, Texas, in February last year, Obama had warned students at the University of Texas-Pan American, , ''Just be careful about those credit-cards, all right? Don't eat out as much.'' After the foreclosure crisis, he had warned ''credit-cards are next in line.'' (See: The US braces for next crisis: Credit cards)
Five big financial companies, Discover Financial Services, Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Capital One Financial issue around 80 per cent of all US credit-cards.
For years, consumers in the US have become ever more dependent on credit-cards with American Express, the largest credit-card issuer in the US, coining the famous tag line, ''Never leave home without it.'' Now an average American does not leave home without at least 10 credit-cards and a whole host of other supermarket credit-cards in his wallet.
As with nearly all US banks in crisis after providing mortgage loans to sub prime borrowers who could ill afford to repay, the same story is likely to unfold with the credit-card industry, as banks have been peddling credit-cards aggressively over the years since profits from credit cards is higher than other banking services.
As a result consumers who are least eligible to hold one, including non-earning students, have ended up owning several cards, which they use to rotate debt for a fee getting deeper into a debt trap.
A substantial portion of the 158 million US cardholders using 1.5 billion cards had started defaulting and banks have had to write of approximately $21 billion in bad credit loans in the first six months of last year and are expecting a further loss of $55 billion in the 12 months ending June this year.
Visa is the largest credit-card processor in the US followed by MasterCard. Both Visa's and MasterCard's stocks have fallen in the past year with Visa's stock down 36 per cent from a 52-week high of $89.84 in May last year and MasterCard stock down by about 50 per cent from its 52-week peak of $320.30 in May in recent trading.