The Washington Post
By: Ylan Q. Mui
January 13, 2010
Consumers will have to divulge more personal information to apply for store credit cards -- possibly putting the brakes on so-called instant credit -- under sweeping industry reforms finalized by the Federal Reserve on Tuesday.
The measure, which takes effect on Feb. 22, requires all credit card issuers to consider shoppers' income and ability to pay before granting approval for a card. The rule aims to tighten the lax lending standards that helped fuel the financial crisis. Retailers say the new measure could disrupt popular promotions that incentivize shoppers, such as discounts for opening a credit card.
Typically, retailers quickly approve new accounts based on customers' credit scores. The new regulations require that they also consider shoppers' income and assets.
"Consumers are not going to want to have that conversation," said Mallory Duncan, a lobbyist for the National Retail Federation, a trade group.
The provision is just one in 1,155 pages of regulations approved by the Fed on Tuesday to implement the next phase of the landmark credit card legislation approved last year. The Fed mandated new strictures on such things as billing cycles to payment allocation to interest-rate increases that together represent a massive overhaul of the credit card industry.
Retailers had sought exemption from the requirement that credit issuers consider consumers' ability to pay for their charges, citing the relatively small credit lines typically extended. They also said collecting income data would be onerous: Shoppers may not want to share such sensitive information with store employees or may not have an accurate account. That could delay applications or discourage sales altogether. Several big-name retailers sent letters to the Fed in protest, including Macy's and Best Buy.
"If this practice discourages the use of consumer credit, it will have a negative impact on retail sales and will result in a slower rate of recovery from the ongoing recession," Macy's senior counsel Steven L. Franks wrote to the Fed in November.
Consumer advocates, on the other hand, thought the provision did not go far enough. The National Consumer Law Center said it asked the Fed to tighten the regulations by requiring credit card issuers -- including retailers -- to verify income, not just collect the information.
"This culture of easy credit is what got us into trouble in lots of different arenas," NCLC staff attorney Chi Chi Wu said.
According to Fitch Ratings, a greater percentage of retail credit cards went unpaid -- or charged off -- than prime credit cards last year. About 12.6 percent of retail cards were charged off in December compared with 10.7 percent of prime cards, although the latter saw a bigger jump over the year.