Washington Every American with a credit card will see sweeping changes in the market, with limits on sudden hikes in interest rates that drive consumers deeper into debt. Even cardholders who pay off their balance each month may face new annual fees or lose out on lucrative rewards programs.
Congress wrapped up the legislation Wednesday and sent it to President Barack Obama, who plans to sign it on Friday. The bill will revolutionize the market by restricting when and how a card company can raise an individual’s interest rate, who can receive a card and how much time people are given to pay their bill.
In general, the new rules — which go into effect in nine months — will protect debt-ridden consumers from many of the surprise charges common in the industry, such as over-the-limit fees and costs for paying a bill by phone.
“This cements a victory for every American consumer who has ever suffered at the hands of the credit card industry,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., chairman of the Banking Committee.
But there will be losers too.
Banks, which oppose the legislation, will need to make up the cost somewhere, and cardholders who pay off their balance in full each month could see new annual fees and lucrative rewards programs canceled. Credit could become harder to come by too.
Some of the changes, including a requirement that cardholders receive 45-days notice before their rates are raised, are already on track to take effect in July 2010 under new regulations by the Federal Reserve. The legislation would put these changes into law and go further in restricting when and how banks charge people and who could get a card.
For example, the bill would require people under 21 to prove first that they can repay the money or that a parent or guardian is willing to pay off their debt if they default.
The House passed the reform bill by a 361-64 vote on Wednesday. The Senate had voted, 90-5, for the measure on Tuesday.
Consumer advocates say it’s up to the banks to decide what happens next.
Nick Bourke, manager of the Safe Credit Cards Project at the Pew Health Group, said companies already offering transparent pricing won’t have to drastically change how they do business. Lenders could probably cover costs with small annual fees in the $15-$20 range or increase upfront interest rates, he said.
“Nothing requires pricing to go up and benefits to go down,” Bourke said. “The only thing that is required is that the price offered actually reflects the cost of using the card.”
Regardless of how banks respond to the bill, it’s passage this week reflects both America’s addiction to debt and easy credit’s contribution to the economic downturn.
Last year, the Nilson Report estimated that more than 700 million credit cards were in circulation in the United States. That’s more than two cards for every man, woman and child.