Wednesday, February 6, 2008

How Low Can You Go?

The month of January 2008 was a tumultuous one, with the market bringing some huge upsets followed by a double dose of welcomed news by the Fed. First, to prevent a very ugly day on Wall Street, Uncle Bernanke cut the Fed Funds rate by ¾ of a percent after a bout of global panic that was brought on by fears of impending doom in the US financial markets. Then, during the Fed’s regularly scheduled meeting, Bernanke delivered what consumers and investors alike were expecting – another ½ percent cut to the current 3.0%.

So, what does that mean to all you credit card wielding fiends? When will your credit card’s interest rates fall and by how much?

First of all, your card interest rates are tied only loosely to the Fed Funds rate. They’re more directly tied to the Prime Rate, which as of my authoring of this article, is 6.0%. The Prime Rate, by definition, is the rate that banks charge their most creditworthy customers. Banks borrow the money at 3%, and loan out at Prime or Prime plus x%, y% or z%.

What this means for you and your credit card interest rate is dependent on a few things.

1) Do you have a variable rate card or fixed rate card?

2) What is your creditworthiness (or lack thereof!)?

3) And, do you have a floor? (Newton sure hopes so)

First, if your card is a fixed rate card, you can stop reading and go find yourself a variable rate card, unless of course your fixed rate is so good that a variable card can't currently beat it. Being tied to a high fixed rate when rates are decreasing at a time like this is just irresponsible, unless of course you’re paying your bills in full each month and you get some really great benefits from your card. By switching to a variable rate card when the Prime Rate is on the down-low, you’ll likely be able to find a better rate than what you’re paying now on a fixed rate card.

Next, many credit cards have tiered rates based on their various customers’ creditworthiness. So, if you’re a goody goody and are doing everything right, you’re probably in the “Prime plus x%” category. If you’re good but not perfect, you’re “Prime plus y%” and if you stink at paying your bills, you’re a “Prime plus z%”. Here’s an example of what I mean, straight from the pages of the Toys ‘R Us & Babies ‘R Us Mastercard (yeah, I’ve got rugrats).

Variable rate information

The following APRs may vary monthly based on the Prime Rate:c

Purchase and Balance Transfer APR: The Prime Rate plus, as applicable, 6.99%, 10.99%, or 15.99% for outstanding and new balances after the introductory period.

cThe "Prime Rate" is the highest prime rate published in the Money Rates column of The Wall Street Journal two business days before the Closing Date on the statement for each billing period.

So, if you’re a Prime plus x%, you’ll be paying 6.0%+6.99%, or 12.99%. If you’re Prime plus y%, you’re shelling out 6.0%+10.99% or 16.99%, and if you’re a credit-challenged, you’re forking over 6.0%+15.99% or 21.99% APR.

As for my third point, “Do you have a floor?”, I’m not talking about that questionable carpet that is host to 25 different beer stains, toe jam, dirt, dust, and a menagerie of invisible insects trying to keep warm. I’m talking about a rate floor. Simply put, a rate floor is a way for your credit card issuer to make more money when interest rates fall. They do this by limiting the amount they will reduce your interest rate when there is a decrease in the Prime Rate. My understanding is that about a third of the credit card programs out there have rate floors. Here’s an example straight from the published Terms and Conditions of one of the co-branded credit cards that I manage in my day job (to remain nameless):

Variable Rate Information. Your APR may vary. The rate is determined monthly by adding the Prime Rate and:

  • 3.74%, 7.74%, or 13.74% for Purchases and this rate will not be lower than 11.99%, 15.99%, and 21.99% respectively.

The information above was published back in September of 2007 when the Prime Rate was at 8.25%. That’s how the issuing bank arrived at the various rates above.

Now if we were working with today’s Prime Rate and no rate floor, the three rate tiers would be 9.74%, 13.74% and 19.74%. However, because of the additional language “and this rate will not be lower than 11.99%, 15.99%, and 21.99% respectively”, the bank just locked in a 2.25% APR raise for themselves! So, while consumers who use this card are eagerly waiting for their interest rate to drop, it just ain’t gonna happen. Instead, the bank will pocket the spread and, well, take it to the bank!

The overall point I’m trying to make here is that you need to understand the Terms and Conditions that your credit card publishes. They’re usually printed in mouse type and they’re intentionally written to cure insomnia. Plain and simple, the banks don’t want you to read them but, by law, they have to give them to you. So, take the time to understand how your current cards work, and make changes if you’re not happy with them. And if you’re not in the mood for heavy reading, just pick up the phone and call your bank – they have to tell you how your interest rates are calculated. If they tell you that you have a high fixed rate or a variable rate with a floor, tell them that CardFish sent you, then tell them to go pound sand!

Good Luck!



Anonymous said...

Hey Cardtuna,

Good info. I just got a new card and checked the fine print. It appears they gave me a variable rate at 18.24%, but then they say it will never be less than 18.24%. In other words, it can always go up, but will never be lower than it is now. I always pay the balance each month so it is really not an issue to me, but it is interesting to see how the banks are riping us all off. It is another reason to make sure that the cardholder gets all the benefits from the rewards programs he can.

Good column!

gridmaster said...

As always, a thought-provoking read, Tuna.

I pulled out my weekly check mailings from Bank of America after reading your column. (By the way, do the readers know that the banks often sneak in amendments to those "check" mailings they send you and you instinctively send to the shredder? I keep 'em all now.)

I noticed that I actually got a small piece of good news today. BofA actually LOWERED my default rate from 32.24% on my 11/28/07 card mailing to 31.74% on the checks I just received.

Those of you quick with the slide rules will notice that change is only the difference in the Prime Rate of .5%.

Of course, I'm not in the Default rate category, nor do I intend to be any time soon. However, if I ever degenerate to the bill-paying acumen of a Tenderloin bum, I'm slightly comforted in the fact that the Irish Wild Rose on my card will send me to the poorhouse just a bit less quickly.

Seriously, when rates are moving, read EVERYTHING in small type they send you.