Happy New Year? Not for credit card companies

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Credit card companies have little to celebrate as many analysts brace for 2009 to be one of the worst years on record for consumer credit.

A shopper uses her credit card to pay for a purchase in Burbank, California November 28, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Losses for the industry could top $70 billion, but it is hard to predict how bad the pain will be.

U.S. consumers have never before been so deeply in debt. There was nearly $1 trillion of credit and charge card debt outstanding as of October, up more than 25 percent since 2003, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve. That is in addition to $10.54 trillion in mortgage debt.

Unemployment, already at 15-year highs, is expected to rise to its highest levels since the early 1980s, when credit cards were not nearly as widespread.

In short, there’s more debt than ever and fewer people are able to pay it.

“In many ways, we’re in uncharted territory,” said John Williams, an analyst at Macquarie Research.

Major credit losses are big trouble for Citigroup Inc, C.N Bank of America BAC.N, and other card issuers such as American Express Co AXP.N and Discover Financial Services DFS.N, which have seen their shares lose up to 80 percent of their value in 2008.

The United States is not standing idly by. Citigroup received $45 billion of taxpayers’ money in October and November. Bank of America has received $25 billion. American Express, which became a bank holding company, got approval last week to receive $3.4 billion from the taxpayer-funded Troubled Asset Relief Program.

Lenders, seeing potential big losses, are trying to protect themselves by tightening credit availability, which leaves consumers with fewer options.

This year’s holiday shopping season was the worst since at least 1970, according to a report from the International Council of Shopping Centers.

“It is hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Williams said.


No credit card company is safe. According to Citigroup analysts, more than one-fourth of the credit card portfolios of Citibank, Bank of America Corp BAC.N, Capital One Corp COF.N, and Discover are subprime, which could lead to further losses.

Meanwhile, American Express is heavily exposed to troubled markets with high default rates such as Florida and California, and J.P.Morgan Chase & Co JPM.N has to digest the portfolio of failed savings and loans company Washington Mutual.

Together, these six companies hold around 90 percent of the total U.S. outstanding credit card debt.

Citigroup and American Express have said they are tightening lending to mitigate their losses. J.P. Morgan and Bank of America declined to comment, while Capital One did not return calls seeking comment.

Credit card companies have reported increased losses. Discover, the No. 4 U.S. credit card network, posted worse-than-expected results in its fourth fiscal quarter, the first sign of the harsh deterioration of the industry, when the economic downturn picked up steam in October and November.

Discover almost doubled the money it set aside to cover credit losses. Analysts said its competitors would likely do the same in coming quarters, leading to lower earnings.

“Things have changed pretty rapidly in the last two months. I’m hopeful that we will see the worst in 2009, but I don’t know yet,” David Nelms, chief executive of Discover, told Reuters in a recent interview.

Many analysts and credit card executives look at 2009 and remember the beginning of the mortgage crisis in early 2007, when lenders consistently underestimated what was coming up.

Said Chris Brendler, analyst at Stifel Nicolaus, “The risk is that things get much worse than expected.”

Additional reporting by Dan Wilchins; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz