Capitol Hill will witness a showdown of sorts today, as President Obama rides in on his white horse to face the black-capped bad guys from the credit card companies. This showdown will center on how to protect consumers in the current economic downturn. President Obama is pushing for legal protection for the millions of Americans using credit cards, which some of his aides have labeled as abusive. Joining the President on the Hill will be executives from Bank of America, American Express, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan Chase, Capital One, Visa, and MasterCard.
Obama wants to make sure that consumers are protected from rates increasing "exponentially on a certain day based on fine print in a contract that no one is ever going to read." Today's showdown is set for 1 PM EST and comes a day after the House passed the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights. This legislation aims to stop credit card issuers from imposing interest rate increases and penalties.
What has changed for the credit card companies, which have been using these techniques for some time now? Lawmakers are more interested now because these same companies have received government bailout money, which was paid for out of the pockets of taxpayers -- the same people who are being hit with high fees from credit cards issued by the companies they helped bail out.
The banks argue that stricter rules may hurt fee income as the banks try to extricate themselves from their current financial woes. In fact, the American Bankers Association trade group is concerned that the House bill could limit the availability of consumer credit, making the credit more expensive. Of course, the American Bankers Association represents the biggest credit card issuers. The banks can rest assured though, since President Obama "recognizes that credit cards are a critical source of liquidity and can be a last line of credit during hard economic times."
That last statement bothers me a bit, because credit cards aren't being used as a last line of defense, they are being used as the only line of spending for some families. According to an MSNBC report and online marketplace CreditCards.com, roughly 80 percent of American households have credit cards and the average outstanding debt on those cards is $10,679. Folks, that is hefty debt. The problem is that many people see the credit cards as a last line of defense against hard times, and use these cards out of perceived necessity.
The White House is going to help individuals learn that they need to save more rather than spend more on credit cards, by trying "to stop the marketing of credit in ways that addicts people to it."
I'm just not sure that more regulation is the way to help consumers and the credit card companies out of this mess. What is the best way? Honesty from the credit card companies would be a start. Transparency about the companies' practices would have been nice, but that didn't happen and the government has had to get involved. We need to stop the predatory practices of credit card companies, like setting up tents on college campuses or on Spring Break to lure college students.
We also have to realize that all of the fault in this situation doesn't fall on the credit card companies. As consumers, we should exhibit some sense of fiscal responsibility and try to live within our means. Yes, you may have to put your groceries on your credit card this month, but make sure that you can pay off the bill before it doubles thanks to credit charges. Know your credit cards, know how much you can afford to put on plastic, and have a plan to quickly pay off your bills.
Perhaps these realizations will come in the coming days, weeks, months, or years. But somehow I doubt today's showdown on Capitol Hill will have much impact.
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