We often talk about the importance of the interest rate the Federal Reserve sets. It is supposed to be the gas or the brakes for the U.S. economy, affecting – we are told – everything from mortgages to deposit-insurance rates. But credit cards? Not so much.
Interest rates on car loans have dropped by half since the Great Recession. Mortage rates came down by around 40 percent. Average credit card rates, according to WalletHub.com, dropped from just under 14 percent to 11 percent in mid 2008, spiked in 2010 and remain around 11.9 percent.
“People who carry a balance on their cards are paying average rates that are very similar to those of 2008,” said WalletHub analyst Jill Gonzalez.
This, despite unprecedented efforts by the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low. Why didn’t credit cards fall very much?
“In a perfect world,” said Gonzales, they would have. “The problem is that banks are a business. So banks have been seeing lower returns on their investments, lower profits on home mortgages.”
To make up for that, Gonzales said banks have used profits from credit cards to support their revenues, and that means interest rates are higher than they could be.
The American Bankers’ Association said banks are still actually making a lower rate of return on credit cards than they used to. And chief economist James Chessen said running a credit card company is expensive no matter what the Federal Reserve does. “There’s an enormous infrastructure that supports the credit card industry – all the call centers and the equipment and neural networks that protect against fraud,” Chessen said. “It’s a resource intensive transaction service product.”
One last reason our credit cards aren’t paying a whole lot of attention to the Federal Reserve: good old-fashioned risk.
“Credit cards are unsecured loans,” said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com. Car loans and home loans are typically less risky because, after all, cars and homes can get repossessed. Credit cards don’t work like that, “so if you go out and buy a stereo and you default on your credit card, the credit card issuer cannot come into your house and take your stereo,” he explained.
No amount of Federal Reserve tinkering will directly affect that risk.
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