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提振美国经济新思路:降低信用卡利率

Brendan Coffey 2011年11月01日

政策制定者们忽视了一个有望极大促进消费支出的机会,那就是降低信用卡的利率。当前信用卡平均利率仍高居14%。

    鉴于经济学家和政策制定者们目前都忙于解决房价和按揭负担等问题,消费支出似乎是拉动经济的不二选择。

    然而,决策者们在这方面忽视了一个极大的机会,没有看到抑制普通消费者支出的另一负担——信用卡利率。总体而言,当前利率水平处于历史低位——自2008年12月至今,美联储(Fed)一直将目标利率保持在0.25%,30年期按揭利率也不到4%,处于过去闻所未闻的低水平。

    但根据跟踪市场上所有1,000多种信用卡的网站LowCards.com的首席执行官比尔•哈德卡夫提供的数据,当前信用卡平均利率高居14.26%,大大高于2009年5月的11.64%。如果希望消费者有更多支出,解决资不抵债的按揭贷款或许有帮助,但降低涉及数以百万计的美国人支付的信用卡利率,或许会更管用。

    2008年金融危机爆发前开始,消费者们就在缩减债务负担,偿债支出占可支配收入的比例已从2007年10月的17%降至今年夏季的11.5%。最新的美联储数据显示,美国人的信用卡债务继年初有所增加后,继续下降,8月份下降4.6%。2010年和2009年,循环债务分别下降4.4% 和1.7%。所有美国人都在减少负债,确保个人财务正常。

    这是件好事。但(消费)支出匮乏对于经济增长而言却是个问题。第三季度消费支出意外大增(2.4%),一度提振了美国经济,但要让美国经济摆脱低迷仍有很长的路要走。而且,在政府没有大规模的经济刺激措施来创造就业、促进新兴产业发展的情况下,只能靠消费者增加支出来拉动经济增长。消费增加会带动销售税增长,减轻地方政府的压力,并在零售和制造领域创造就业机会,让更多的人重新有能力扩大消费。而那些消费的人们,他们的经济状况可能得到改善,从而能够承担更高的负债。当前的问题是如何启动这个良性循环。

    不妨来看看信用卡利率整体下调有可能释放的购买力。目前,美国人的循环债务为2.44万亿美元。以当前平均利率计算,每年利息支出高达3,720亿美元。如果信用卡利率降至10%,可立刻释放1,200亿美元的购买力,相当于1.12亿美国家庭每户约1,100美元。上周发布的、修订后的按揭(救助)方案的估算效应虽然是其两倍,但最多只能惠及500万户美国家庭。

    诚然,要实践这一想法仍有很多障碍:比如,如果发卡行不愿主动降低信用卡利率,就需要政府下令强制实施。这也不是没有先例——大多数州都设有利率上限,2009年美国政府还下令信用卡还款应首先用于偿还利率最高的债务。但这并不是最理想做法,哈德卡夫称,“每当银行在某一领域的盈利能力受到限制,它们就会另辟途径,把这笔钱赚回来。问题还是会踢给消费者。”看看当前的一波借记卡收费潮就可以知道了——由于监管部门对银行向零售商收取的网络服务费设定上限,一些银行开始向持卡人收取服务费。非常遗憾的是,许多大银行已决定不追随美国银行(Bank of America)、富国银行(Wells Fargo)和其他几家银行采用收取高额月费的方式。

    或许还有其他方法。1986年税改之前,所有人的信用卡付息都能享受课税减免政策。重新恢复这一政策或许能减轻中产阶级过于沉重的税负压力,淡化他们捉襟见肘的感觉,更多地找到点沃伦•巴菲特的感觉。

    Judging by how economists and policymakers appear to have locked in on fixing housing prices and mortgage burdens, consumer spending looks to be the best bet for jumpstarting the economy.

    Policymakers are ignoring a huge opportunity on that front, failing to see another burden that caps the spending by the average consumer: credit cards interest rates. Overall, interest rates are at historic lows -- since December 2008 the Fed has kept its target rate at 0.25% and 30-year mortgages are at previously unheard of sub-4% levels.

    Yet the average credit card interest rate is now 14.26%, according to Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, which tracks all 1,000-plus credit cards in the marketplace. That is up sharply from 11.64% in May 2009. If you want consumers to spend more, fixing the mortgages of those underwater may help. But lowering the interest rate millions more Americans pay on their credit cards would help much more.

    Since before the financial crisis of 2008, consumers have been cutting back on their debt loads, with the debt service payment to disposable income falling 17% from October 2007 by this summer to 11.5% of disposable income. The most recent Federal Reserve data continues to show Americans are cutting back on their credit card debt -- it fell 4.6% in August, after rising earlier in the year. In 2010 and 2009, revolving debt fell 4.4% and 1.7%, respectively. We are all setting our personal finances right by carrying less debt.

    That's a good thing. But that lack of spending is a problem for economic growth. The economy was bolstered during the third quarter by a surprisingly strong surge in consumer spending -- up 2.4% -- but we still have a long way to climb out of the sluggish economy. And absent a massive government stimulus to create jobs and spark new industries, it falls to consumers to spend more to grow the economy. Spending more in turn generates sales taxes which lowers pressure on municipalities, it creates jobs in retail and manufacturing, getting more people back toward being able to spend more themselves. It also likely boosts the fortunes of those spending, making the higher debt level more manageable. The issue at hand is getting that cycle started.

    Consider the spending power unleashed by an across the board cut in credit card interest rates. Americans now carry $2.44 trillion in revolving debt. At the current average interest rate, that costs $372 billion in interest payments in one year. Drop card rates to 10% and it immediately frees up $120 billion for Americans to spend. That's about $1,100 for each and every 112 million U.S. households. By comparison the revamped mortgage program announced earlier this week is estimated to generate about twice that benefit, but for just 5 million households at best.

    Granted there are huge hurdles to the idea: for one, if issuing banks didn't cut rates voluntarily, it would then fall to the government to mandate lower credit card rates. Still, that's not unheard of -- most states do cap interest rates and in 2009 the government mandated credit card payments go to highest interest rate debt first. But it's not ideal, says Hardekopf. "Whenever banks are restricted in making money in one area, they find another way to make that money. It comes back to haunt the consumer." Just look at the current spate of debit card fees in reaction to caps on network fees charged to retailers. It's bad enough that many big banks have decided not to follow the lead of Bank of America (BAC), Wells Fargo (WFC) and a few others in charging steep monthly fees.

    Maybe there's another way. Until the tax reform of 1986, credit card interest was a tax deduction for everyone. Bringing it back may be just a way to lighten the middle class's excessive tax burden, making them feel less like paupers and a little more like Warren Buffett.

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