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Citigroup's card cutoffs generate fears

Citigroup's headquarters in London.

TEXT OF STORY

KAI RYSSDAL: Risk has been the byword of most of the stories about Wall Street the past six months or so. Everything from huge corporate investments like the ones Ashley was just talking about to subprime mortgages, too. Nobody's been able to figure out how much risk they can tolerate. So instead, they've just stopped lending money altogether. Today the credit crunch hit 160,000 Citigroup customers over in England. The bank's going to shut down their accounts because they are bad risks.

We asked Marketplace's Jeff Tyler to look into whether American consumers might be the next to lose their plastic privileges.


JEFF TYLER: Citigroup bought a British bank called Egg last spring. With the acquisition, Citigroup inherited over 2 million credit-card customers. About 7 percent of them had missed payments in the past or had other credit problems.

Adrian Russell is a spokesman for Egg.

Adrian Russell: We're very sorry, but we don't want to lend them any new money. Or we don't want them to borrow any new money from us. Apart from that, nothing's changed. They won't be able to use their card for new purchases, but we're not asking for immediate repayment.

Russell says the purge is a one-time event. But some observers consider the case as a test for what banks might do in the U.S.

Nomi Prins: I think it's definitely a trend that can extend in the U.S.

That's Nomi Prins with the public policy think tank Demos. She says many U.S. financial institutions have problems with their credit-card customers. Prins expects credit-card debt will be the next crisis to follow the subprime mortgage mess.

Prins: Once people couldn't pay their mortgages, depleted their home-equity loan lines, the next place they went to look for money was in credit cards. And that will be the next place that feels the pain.

Prins thinks banks will take a second look at their credit-card customers. But risk won't be the determining factor. She says the banks evaluate customers in terms of how many fees they generate. So if you're behind in your payments, but you make the payments, don't fear.

The banks love your late fees.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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