Consumers reach for the plastic

Ashley Milne-Tyte May 29, 2008

Consumers reach for the plastic

Ashley Milne-Tyte May 29, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: Picking up where Bob left off, there is an irony here that might not be fully appreciated. While debt helped the economy and us get into this mess in the first place — think credit crunch — many of us are looking at debt as a way to get through it.

Americans are maxing out our plastic and as Ashley Milne-Tyte reports, credit card companies are only too happy to let us do it.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: MasterCard raised its profit forecast today, saying consumers are using more plastic.

Robert Manning directs the Center for Consumer Financial Services at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He says when MasterCard and Visa were owned by the banks, customer balances generated much of their profits. Now they’re independent. Their revenue comes mostly from the number of card swipes.

Robert Manning: Under this structure, there’s a lot of revenue now that they’re seeing for people that would have used cash that they’re more aggressively marketing debit cards to.

They’re selling credit cards hard as well and Scott Hoyt of Moody’s says consumers are buying. He says until recently, many people were borrowing against the value of their homes.

Scott Hoyt: Now, since house prices are declining, consumers are much less able to borrow against what equity they have in their homes and as a result, are shifting the borrowing that they’re doing back towards credit cards.

Hoyt says spending is down and will continue to fall. He’s not convinced the increased use of cards will hurt the economy.

But Robert Manning isn’t so sure. He says a wave of middle-class loan holders are struggling to pay their mortgages and they’re tapping whatever credit lines they can…

Manning: …assuming and being convinced that the housing market is going to recover and it’s OK to take on all this credit card debt.

He says it’s a dangerous gamble. If the market continues to melt down, they could lose their homes and find themselves buried under a mountain of debt.

In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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