U.S. News

Banks Focus on People Who Can Pay More for Credit Cards

Eric Dash|The New York Times

Rewards cardholders take note: the price of perks is about to go up.

Cash and credit card

After years of profiting from debt-ridden credit cardholders, lenders are turning their attention to a potentially lucrative new source of fee income, the moneyed users of rewards programs who spend big and pay their bills on time.

Banks are scrambling to find revenue as new credit card protections that take effect on Monday make it harder to raise rates and reap billions in penalty fees from consumers, especially people at the margin. Lenders are betting they can cover some of the difference by luring rewards programs users to pay more for perks once subsidized by weaker borrowers.

“There is a much greater focus on the heavy spender,” said Jack Forestell, senior vice president of marketing and analytics at Capital One Financial, one of the biggest card issuers. “It will be a focal point of the competitive battleground.”

The emphasis on spending over lending is rewriting the rules of the business. Card lenders have absorbed close to $150 billion in losses since the financial crisis began. Many had courted cardholders with poor credit records whose delinquencies made up the bulk of some $23 billion in penalty income. Now, banks are spurning the risky and shutting down inactive accounts. All told, more than $1.3 trillion of unused credit lines was pulled in over the last three years, or nearly one-third of the total amount of credit available, according to Foresight Analytics research.

Many of the biggest card issuers see an untapped source of revenue in the affluent. American Express and JPMorgan Chase have embarked on aggressive campaigns to attract wealthier customers and get them to pay higher annual fees for a new menu of premium rewards. Even Barclays is pitching a $495-a-year Visa Black card with a concierge service that will reserve a tee time or arrange for a dog groomer.

While most major card lenders sharply cut back on direct mail last year, almost nine out of 10 new card offers were attached to a rewards program that appeals to big spenders, according to Synovate, a global marketing research firm. Only six in 10 applications were for a rewards card program in 2007, before the financial crisis struck.

Typically, basic credit-card perks like frequent-flier miles and cash-back bonuses can be had for no annual fee to around $75. Chase Card Services, for example, long promoted a United Mileage Plus Signature Visa card with a $60 annual fee that offered customers one mile for every $1 spent. In August, it started a new blitz to convince people that it would be worth paying annual fees of up to $315 more for a host of glittering perks.

For a $130 annual fee, United Select cardholders can receive double or triple miles on ticket purchases. For a $375 annual fee, United Club cardholders can get added bonuses, like access to airport flight lounges.

American Express has been testing a new Zync charge card since December modeled after the way iPhone users customize the device. For a $25 annual fee, cardholders will be enrolled in a basic rewards program. Then, for around $20 each, they can choose from a number of different “packs” carrying additional benefits, like one offering double points on travel-related purchases or another offering discounts on mobile phone accessories and bonus points on paying their monthly bill. More packs are coming.

Some liken the changes to the marketing sleight-of-hand of the airlines, which have kept their base fares low while tacking on new fees for pillows, peanuts and baggage. The risk is that banks will alienate customers who notice that they are paying more for the total cost of the flight.

“That is the tightrope that banks are walking right now, and it is a real high-wire act,” said Robert K. Hammer, a longtime investment banker who specializes in the credit card industry.

Along with other measures, he estimated that the renewed focus on annual fee income —which totaled $6 billion in 2009 and is likely to climb higher — might help lenders recoup about one-third of their projected shortfall.

Other card lenders are cutting costs by making it harder to earn rewards points for airline tickets, big-screen TVs and other prized items. Banks have also ratcheted up the use of blackout periods, redemption fees and other restrictions that frustrated customers whose loyalty they wanted. The average rewards point, once worth as much as 1 or 2 cents, was effectively devalued to less than a penny by 2008, industry experts estimate.

Chase, for example, has overhauled its once generous Freedom rewards card no fewer than three times in the last three years.

In 2006, cardholders were offered a 1 percent rebate in cash or points on all purchases, and 3 percent on items bought at grocery stores, gas stations and fast-food restaurants. By last year, Chase’s Freedom program was far more restrictive. Cardholders had to register online to be eligible to receive the 3 percent rebates — and they were available only in three categories that rotated each quarter.

“If Chase doesn’t want to give out as many rewards, fine — but goodbye,” said Scott Friend, a 30-year-old from New York who recently dropped his Chase Freedom credit card for a Capital One card offering cash back.

Chase officials say that they changed the Freedom program to reflect new consumer insights and are planning yet another round of changes. Next month, all Chase Freedom cardholders will give up their existing benefits and be moved into a new cash-back rewards program offering a 5 percent rebate in three categories that change each quarter. (The catch is that cardholders will have to sign up to receive the benefits and will no longer qualify for a coveted $50 bonus.) Meanwhile, Chase is aggressively marketing a more upscale and less lucrative rewards card known as the Chase Sapphire, which offers one rewards point for every $1 of spending.

To further compensate for declining fee revenue, some lenders are simply adding annual charges to cards that did not have them —even if no rewards are attached. Citigroup, for example, will begin charging many cardholders a $60 annual fee in April unless they cancel their account by next month. (The fee will be credited back if they spend more than $2,400 over the next year.) Bank of America similarly notified tens thousands of customers that they would start seeing an annual fee of $29 to $99 on their February statements.

Credit card companies also reap a big portion of their income from the transaction fees that merchants pay each time a customer swipes a credit card. And the more upscale rewards credit cards in use, the more money they can make.

Retailers pay about 2.1 percent of the transaction value on a purchase made by a high-end rewards cardholder, compared to around 1.47 percent for an ordinary customer, according to Visa data. For a typical $40 purchase with a rewards card, for example, a retailer would pay about 94 cents, compared with a 67- to 70-cent fee if an ordinary card is swiped. The retailers also may increasingly finance extra card benefits themselves, instead of splitting the cost with the banks.

But merchants warn that the shift to more rewards will raise the cost of goods as they pass along the fees. “It’s like this huge, secret annual fee for credit,” said Mallory Duncan, the chief lawyer for the National Retail Federation. “It’s not good for us, and it is not good for our customers.”