(Reuters) - Prominent banking analyst Meredith Whitney warned that “credit cards are the next credit crunch,” as contracting credit lines will lower consumer spending and hurt the U.S. economy.
“Few doubt the importance of consumer spending to the U.S. economy and its multiplier effect on the global economy, but what is underappreciated is the role of credit-card availability in that spending,” Whitney wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
She said though credit was extended “too freely over the past 15 years” and rationalization of lending is unavoidable, what needs to be avoided was “taking credit away from people who have the ability to pay their bills.”
Whitney said available lines were reduced by nearly $500 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008 alone, and she estimates over $2 trillion of credit-card lines will be cut within 2009, and $2.7 trillion by the end of 2010.
“Inevitably, credit lines will continue to be reduced across the system, but the velocity at which it is already occurring and will continue to occur will result in unintended consequences for consumer confidence, spending and the overall economy,” Whitney said.
Currently, there is roughly $5 trillion in credit-card lines outstanding in the U.S., and a little more than $800 billion is currently drawn upon, she said.
“Lenders, regulators and politicians need to show thoughtful leadership now on this issue in order to derail what I believe will be at least a 57 percent contraction in credit-card lines,” she said.
Over the past 20 years, Americans have also grown to use their credit card as a cash-flow management tool, she said adding that 90 percent of credit-card users revolve a balance at least once a year, and over 45 percent of credit-card users revolve every month.
Whitney said the five lenders which dominate two thirds of the credit-card market need to work together to protect one another and preserve credit lines to able paying borrowers by setting consortium guidelines on credit.
Reporting by Ratul Ray Chaudhuri in Bangalore