Credit Card Squeeze ~ market folly

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Credit Card Squeeze

I wanted to post up an excerpt from a piece in Fortune a while back which discussed the next Credit Crunch. In it, Geoff Colvin hints at what could be a difficult time for credit card companies. Some of this information sets up a broad backstory as to why one might short the likes of Capital One (COF), American Express (AXP), Discover Financial (DFS), or even banks like Citigroup (C) who have large credit card businesses.

Here's an excerpt from the article,

"Last year, just as the subprime crisis happened, credit card debt took off. The home-equity ATM had been shut down, so people turned to the last source of easy money they had left, the most expensive debt on the menu, credit card borrowing.

Since credit card debt has been growing much faster than the economy - more than 8% in last year's third and fourth quarters and over 7% in May (the most recent month reported)- people are apparently using it as a substitute for income. Thus, for the past year or so we have still maintained the standard-of-living illusion.

But a big crunch is coming - and here's why. Credit card debt, like mortgage debt, gets bundled, securitized, and sold off by banks. Citigroup (C), one of America's largest credit card lenders, just reported that it lost $176 million in the second quarter through securitizing such debt. That happens when the buyers of those securities observe rising delinquency rates and rising interest rates, and decide the debt is worth less than Citi thought. More generally, the amount of credit card debt that is securitized nationwide has plunged by more than half in the past five months because it's getting riskier. That means credit card issuers will be charging customers higher interest rates, and since the banks can't offload as much of the debt as before, they'll have less money to lend to cardholders.

The squeeze has already started, which is why Congress is in the process of passing the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights, which would prevent issuers from changing rates and terms without warning, among many other provisions. But bottom line, the credit card money window is going to start closing - and soon.

So now what? It's hard to see where consumers can turn next. Home prices seem highly unlikely to start rising again soon. Stocks? You never know, but the Great Bull Market looks like a once-in-a-lifetime event. Homes and stocks are households' biggest asset classes by far. There isn't much else to borrow against.

It may be that the standard-of-living bubble finally has to deflate. Sustainable increases in living standards have to be earned, not borrowed, and that means performing ever higher value work that can't be outsourced. We haven't been meeting that challenge very well; doing so will probably require much more and better education for millions of Americans, which takes time and money."

I agree with the overall theme of this article and truly believe that the strapped consumer is going to be facing larger headwinds than anyone anticipates (which I partly touched on here). Credit card debt is piling up for the average American, and many are having a very hard time paying it off. This simple concept was illustrated in a nice graph I posted earlier, showing how delinquencies are rising. Capital One (COF) is the perfect example of a company being impacted by this. It has been piling up each quarter and their most recent earnings/conference call gave us a further glimpse, as noted by Forbes' Melinda Peer, who writes

"Credit card and banking company Capital One (COF) said its net charge-off rate, or measure of soured loans, for its U.S. card business jumped to 6.34% in September, from 5.96% in August. Internationally, charge-offs rose to a rate of 5.87%, from 5.31%, in the same period.

Delinquencies, considered signs of troubled accounts, were also on the rise in the U.S. and abroad during September. Domestically the McLean, Va.-based company's 30-day delinquency rate inched up to 4.20%, from 4.07%, in August, and internationally the rate inched up to 5.24%, from 5.15%."

Calculated Risk also took the liberty of transcribing key comments from the conference call, which you can read here. Basically, the company is taking positive steps to reduce credit lines and try to limit their risk. But, they still won't be able to completely protect themselves from the impending tsunami.

Additionally, this WSJ article seems to imply that credit card companies and banks are going to face historic headwinds in the credit card arena. Overall, I truly believe this is going to be an over-arching theme that stems from the current crisis as things continue to bleed over to main street. The ultimate question becomes, how much of this is already priced into banking and credit card equities, if at all?

Full disclosure: At the time of publication, MarketFolly was short COF
Source: Fortune