The problem with banning floors on credit-card rates

By Felix Salmon
January 15, 2010
released its final rule governing credit card issuers. The whole thing can be downloaded here; it's a mere 1,155 pages long. And credit card consultant Timothy Kolk has found something rather worrying buried within it.

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On Tuesday, the Federal Reserve released its final rule governing credit card issuers. The whole thing can be downloaded here; it’s a mere 1,155 pages long. And credit card consultant Timothy Kolk has found something rather worrying buried within it.

Here’s the language from page 317:

Consumer groups and a member of Congress raised concerns about two industry practices that, in their view, exercise control over the variable rate in a manner that is inconsistent with revised TILA Section 171(b)(2). First, they noted that many card issuers set minimum rates or “floors” below which a variable rate cannot fall even if a decrease would be consistent with a change in the applicable index. For example, assume that a card issuer offers a variable rate of 17%, which is calculated by adding a margin of 12 percentage points to an index with a current value of 5%. However, the terms of the account provide that the variable rate will not decrease below 17%. As a result, the variable rate can only increase, and the consumer will not benefit if the value of the index falls below 5%. The Board agrees that this practice is inconsistent with § 226.55(b)(2). Accordingly, the Board has revised comment 55(b)(2)-2 to clarify that a card issuer exercises control over the operation of the index if the variable rate based on that index is subject to a fixed minimum rate or similar requirement that does not permit the variable rate to decrease consistent with reductions in the index.

In English, what this says is that credit card companies can’t put a floor on their credit-card interest rates. If you’re paying 12 percentage points above Libor, you pay 12 percentage points above Libor, no matter how low Libor goes. On page 516, the Fed gives an example: even if the terms of a credit-card contract include a floor below which an interest rate cannot fall, that floor can no longer be enforced after February 22.

Sounds great, right? Surely if there’s no minimum interest rate, that’s got to be good for consumers? Actually, no: there’s a problem here, due to the fact that interest rates are very low right now.

Let’s say that I’m a customer-owned credit union, and I want to issue my customers a card carrying a low interest rate of 9.9%. I also want to protect myself in case rates rise a lot, so I put in language saying that the interest rate always has to be at least 3.9 percentage points over the Prime rate. Prime is currently just 3.25%, but if Ben Bernanke were to raise the Fed funds rate past 3%, then the rate on the credit card would begin to rise.

As of February 22, that kind of product will be illegal. The variable-interest bit (Prime + 3.9%) is fine. But if you have a variable-interest credit card, you can’t set a floor any more. Which means that since Prime is just 3.25% right now, the interest rate today would be set at an uneconomical 7.15%.

As a result, if I want to charge a 9.9% interest rate today, I need to peg the card’s interest rate at Prime + 6.65%, and the rate on the card will start rising as soon as Bernanke raises rates by so much as a quarter-point.

Clearly a Prime + 3.9% card with a floor of 9.9% is a better deal for consumers than a Prime + 6.65% card. But the Fed is banning the former product, and forcing issuers into the latter.

The point here is that banks need to charge at least 10% or so on their credit cards, no matter how low prevailing rates are, just because of charge-offs and expenses. That doesn’t mean they always need to charge at least 10 percentage points more than the Fed funds rate, however.

I do think that floors on credit-card interest rates are a bad thing if they’re set so that consumers can’t benefit from falling rates. But right now, when rates are at zero, that’s really not an issue — and banning floors can sometimes make products worse rather than better. I wonder whether the Fed understood this when it put its rules together.

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