The decline of credit cards

November 11, 2009
Ezra Klein, on what he considers a vicious cycle in credit cards:

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Ezra Klein, on what he considers a vicious cycle in credit cards:

The problem is that the people who migrate toward debit cards are the people who have enough money not to need much credit and are responsible enough to not want it. The good risks, in other words. The people left in the credit card market will be disproportionately bad risks, which means rates will go up and standards will tighten, which will in turn drive more people out of the market, starting the cycle over again.

I’m not convinced that this is a bad thing. Credit cards are useful payment devices, but atrocious borrowing devices. (Steve Waldman has a great post explaining the distinction further.) We want to move to a world where people use charge cards for transactional purposes, and personal loans for credit purposes. The way we’re going to get there is, essentially, by taxing the stuff we want less of — and that means increasing the interest rates and annual fees on credit cards.

Sometimes this is going to happen in an underhand and less-than-honest way: Odysseas Papadimitriou has a great blog entry on how Bank of America is denying that introducing a $50 annual fee constitutes a repricing of its credit cards, for instance. But the big move, away from credit cards and towards alternate means of payment and sources of credit, is surely to be welcomed.

The sad aspect to all this is that millions of people hold large credit card balances and have no ability to refinance them with personal loans, or even any particular notion that such a thing might be possible. They’re going to be harmed by this move. But over time, if things go right, their numbers will naturally dwindle, and we’ll be left with a much healthier system of consumer finance.


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