Consumer credit Card sharks


Nov 29th 2007 | LONDON AND NEW YORK From The Economist print edition

Is the subprime mortgage crisis infecting America's credit-card market?

WHEN there is blood in the water, it is only natural that dorsal fins swirl around excitedly. Now that America's housing market is ailing, predators have their sights on the country's credit-card market. Analysts at Goldman Sachs reckon that credit-card losses could reach $99 billion if contagion spreads from subprime mortgages to other forms of consumer credit. Signs of strain are clearly visible. There are rises in both the charge-off and delinquency rates, which measure the share of balances that are uncollectable or more than 30 days late respectively. HSBC announced last month that it had taken a $1.4 billion charge in its American consumer-finance business, partly because of weakness among card borrowers.

It is too early to panic, though. Charge-offs and delinquencies are still low. According to Moody's, a rating agency, the third-quarter delinquency rate of 3.89% was almost a full percentage point below the historical average. The deterioration in rates can be partly explained by technical factors. A change in America's personal-bankruptcy laws in 2005 led to an abrupt fall in bankruptcy filings, which in turn account for a big chunk of credit-card losses; the number of filings (and thus charge-off rates) would be rising again, whether or not overall conditions for borrowers were getting worse.

The industry also reports solid payment rates, which show how much of their debt consumers pay off each month. And confidence in credit-card asset-backed securities is pretty firm despite paralysis in other corners of structured finance. Dennis Moroney of TowerGroup, a research firm, predicts that issuance volumes for 2007 will end up being 25% higher than last year.

Direct channels of infection between the subprime-mortgage crisis and the credit-card market certainly exist: consumers are likelier to load up on credit-card debt now that home-equity loans are drying up. But card issuers look at cash flow rather than asset values, so falling house prices do not necessarily trigger a change in borrowers' creditworthiness. They may even work to issuers' advantage. The incentives for consumers to keep paying the mortgage decrease if properties are worth less than the value of the loan; card debt rises higher up the list of repayment priorities as a result.

Card issuers are also able to respond much more swiftly and flexibly to stormier conditions than mortgage lenders are, by changing interest rates or altering credit limits. That should in theory reduce the risk of a rapid repricing of assets. “We are not going to wake up one day and totally revalue the loans,” says Gary Perlin, Capital One's chief financial officer.

If a sudden subprime-style meltdown in the credit-card market is improbable, the risks of a sustained downturn are much more real. If lower house prices and a contraction in credit push America into recession, the industry will undoubtedly face a grimmer future. Keep watching for those dorsal fins.