Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Do Credit Card “Deadbeats” Get a Free Ride?

In credit card industry parlance, a "deadbeat" is a customer who pays his bill in full each month, incurring no finance charges. Since most cards have no annual fee, deadbeats pay nothing for use of the cards. In recent days, there's been much speculation that the "free ride" is over. Congress' credit card reform bill is due to be on Obama's desk by Memorial Day. The purpose of the bill is to limit the fees and penalties imposed on those who don't pay their monthly minimums (the folks the rest of us might actually call "deadbeats"). Understandably, banks aren't crazy about the bill. They've been hinting that they'll take it out on the other deadbeats. This might involve discontinuing rebate programs or grace periods and introducing annual fees.
I'm a hard-core deadbeat. I don't pay fees or interest, and I get free credit between the time I make a purchase and pay for it. That adds up. Assuming a 6 percent cost of funds, one month's free interest amounts to a 0.5 percent "rebate" on everything I buy. That's not all. My main card (get this: a "Platinum Rewards Visa Card" issued by State Farm Bank) gives me an additional 1 percent rebate on purchases, good for paying my home insurance premiums. Since I'm going to pay my insurance anyway, that's as good as cash.
Am I getting a free ride? Not really. I am paying for that 1.5 percent total "rebate," just not in ways easy to see. Merchants pay credit card companies a service fee for all credit card purchases. The fee usually ranges from 2 to 4 percent. When gas stations first starting taking credit cards, they offered a "cash discount" rather than a "credit surcharge." The credit card companies knew enough behavioral economics to demand that. Increasingly, transactions are electronic, and that means there's always a third party getting a cut. Today, to do business with Amazon, iTunes, or car rental places, you basically have to pay by credit card. Ergo, these businesses build the 2 to 4 percent fee into their prices. That means I pay 2 to 4 percent more than I would otherwise, in order to give the credit card issuer its cut. The issuer than refunds 1.5 percent to me. It's still made a profit of 0.5-2.5 percent (less its expenses) on the transaction. As long as the expenses are less than 0.5-2.5 percent, the issuer is making money off deadbeats.
Banks may well use the new credit card regulations as an pretext to test how price-sensitive their customers are. Would you really give up your credit card if you had to pay a $35 annual fee? (My answer: no, not for the one card I really use. I would cancel a bunch of rarely-used cards in my wallet.) Issuers are unlikely to do anything that causes too many customers to cut up their cards. The business—even the deadbeat business—is too profitable.

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