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Banks Brace for Credit Card Write-Offs

It used to be easy to guess how many Americans would have problems paying their credit card bills. Banks just looked at unemployment: Fewer jobs meant more trouble ahead.

Credit Cards
Credit Cards

The unemployment rate has long mirrored banks’ loss rates on card balances. But Eddie Ward, 32 and jobless, may be one reason that rule of thumb no longer holds. For many lenders, losses are now starting to outpace layoffs.

Mr. Ward, of Arkansas, lost his job at a retail warehouse in April and so far has managed to make minimum payments on his credit card debt, which he estimates at $15,000 to $20,000. Asked whether he thinks he will be able to pay off his balance, he said, “Not unless I win the lottery.”

In the meantime, he said, “I’m just doing what I can.”

Experts predict that millions of Americans will not be able to pay off their debts, leaving a gaping hole at ailing banks still trying to recover from the housing bust.

The bank stress test results, released Thursday, suggested that the nation’s 19 biggest banks could expect nearly $82.4 billion in credit card losses by the end of 2010 under what federal regulators called a “worst case” economic situation.

But if unemployment breaches 10 percent, as many economists predict, the rate of uncollectible balances at some banks could far exceed that level. At American Express and Capital One Financial, around 20 percent of the credit card balances are expected to go bad over this year and next, according to stress test results. At Bank of America, Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase, about 23 percent of card loans are expected to sour.

Even the government’s grim projections may vastly understate the size of the banks’ credit card troubles. According to estimates by Oliver Wyman, a management consulting firm, card losses at the nation’s biggest banks could reach $141.5 billion by 2010 if the regulators’ loss rate was applied to their entire credit card business. It could top $186 billion for the entire credit card industry.

In the official stress test results, regulators published losses only on credit cards held on bank balance sheets. The $82.4 billion figure did not reflect another element in their analysis: tens of billions of dollars in losses tied to credit card loans that the banks packaged into bonds and held off their balance sheets. A portion of those losses, however, will be absorbed by outside investors.

What is more, the peak unemployment level that regulators used to drive their loss estimates is roughly what current rates are on track to reach. That suggests that if the unemployment rate gets much worse, credit card losses could be worse than what regulators projected.

And many economists expect the number of job losses to climb even higher. On Friday, the unemployment rate reached 8.9 percent as the economy shed 539,000 jobs. The unemployment rate and the rate of credit card charge-offs, or uncollectible balances, have been aligned because consumers who lose their jobs are more likely to miss payments.

Banks wrote off an average of 5.5 percent of their credit card balances in 2008, while the average unemployment rate was 5.8 percent. By the end of the year, the rate of credit-card write-offs was 6.3 percent; more recent data was not available.

Experts predict that the rate of credit-card losses could eventually surpass the jobless rate because of the compounding effects of the housing crisis and lackluster consumer confidence. Shortly after the technology bubble burst in 2001, credit card loss rates peaked at 7.9 percent.

“We will blow right through it,” said Inderpreet Batra, a consultant at Oliver Wyman, which specializes in financial services.

Unlike in prior recessions, cardholders who recently lost their jobs are unlikely to be able to extract equity from their homes or draw down retirement accounts to help pay off their debts. That means borrowers who fall behind on their bills are more likely to default, leading to higher losses.

After writing off about $45 billion in bad debts during 2008, credit card lenders are bracing for the worst year in the industry’s history. Not only are losses spiraling, but also lawmakers are on the verge of passing a set of tough new consumer protections that could have a devastating effect on profits. This week, the Senate is expected to take up the Credit Cardholders Bill of Rights after the measure passed in the House with a strong bipartisan vote of 357 to 70.

Over the weekend, President Obama pressed lawmakers to approve the new rules, which would curb the ability of card issuers to raise interest rates retroactively on consumers and would require them to reduce hidden fees and penalties. He hopes to sign the legislation by Memorial Day.

For the banks, the economics of the credit card business are increasingly troubling. As the recession has dragged on, cardholders have sharply reduced spending. New customers with strong credit histories are increasingly hard to find.

And the most troubled borrowers are so deeply mired in debt that card companies are willing to strike deals to remove late fees and reduce card loan balances. The average American household is saddled with nearly $8,400 of credit card and other revolving debt, according to Moody’s Economy.com.

Every major credit card issuer has been approving fewer new applicants, reining in credit lines and canceling unused accounts. And Meredith A. Whitney, a prominent banking analyst, expects credit card lenders to cut the lines of credit they extend to borrowers by a total of $2.7 trillion through 2010. That is equivalent to a 57 percent reduction in the credit they made available two years ago at the height of the boom.

Within the card industry, all eyes are now focused on the sharp increase in unemployment. At Citigroup, executives noted that the company’s 10.2 percent credit card charge-off rate for the first quarter had broken its “historic correlation with unemployment” and showed no sign of letting up.

American Express, Bank of America and Capital One Financial showed first-quarter loss rates that hovered around 8.5 percent, roughly tracking the unemployment rate. All three said they expected higher losses in the coming months. Even Chase Card Services, which charged off just 7.7 percent of its card loans in the first quarter, expects its loss levels to surpass unemployment by the end of the year.

Card executives say there will little improvement until the economy stabilizes and consumers are more optimistic.

Cindy Schneider of Connecticut, 53, is a long way from being confident about her finances.

She is not making any money from her job as a real estate agent and cannot find work elsewhere. Her husband’s pay was just cut 10 percent. And she worries about how they will pay off a $5,000 balance on their credit card.

When her credit card company recently raised her interest rates, saying she was three days late with a payment, Ms. Schneider transferred the balance to another card with a lower rate.

“We are borrowing from Peter to pay Paul,” she said.