Apr 142010
 

Washington has spent trillions of taxpayer dollars to bail out the Money Industry – not just the $700 billion cash life preserver, but also loans at near zero percent interest. Then the banks and credit card companies turned around and loaned us our own money at ten times the interest rate they paid, forcing us to pay through the nose coming and going.

And there’s no sign of relief. The New York Times reports that interest rates on mortgages, car loans and credit cards are reaching historical records. Credit card rates could climb another three points by the fall, according to one expert.

And that doesn’t include the endless creation of other techniques to fleece beleaguered consumers – ATM charges, minimum balance requirements, and my personal favorite, “billing fees.” That’s a fee you pay the company for the privilege of receiving a bill. To catch a glimpse of where this is all headed, just look at how the airlines are unbundling their services. Last week, Spirit Airlines announced that flyers will be required to pay up to $45 for carry on baggage.

Having abetted the financial collapse with decades of deregulatory coddling of Wall Street (PDF), Washington spared no expense to rescue its patrons. But regular Americans never got any relief.

In fact, now that Washington has declared “mission accomplished” on the economy, it’s shutting down programs that were designed to benefit Wall Street but indirectly affected the rest of us. For example, last month the Federal Reserve stopped buying risky mortgage-based securities from banks – a two-year, $1.25 trillion bailout that relieved the banks of the risks of these speculation-driven investments. It was intended to encourage the firms to expand their lending. The end of this federal subsidy is one reason why experts are saying mortgage rates are going to go up.

On the very day in 2008 that the Bush Administration first proposed the $700 billion bailout, I urged that Congress slap a cap on the interest rates that recipients of any bailout would turn around and charge American consumers. And I’ve repeated that call since. But there was no quid pro quo for the public in the deal. Even in the so-called Credit Card Reform Act of 2009, Congress not only placed no cap on credit card rates, it gave the industry months in which to raise interest rates through the roof before the new rules kicked in.

Congress has gone back to work on “financial reform.” The purpose, supposedly, is to pass new laws that would prevent another financial collapse. There’s no reason why Congress can’t include some relief for Americans who are still suffering from the last debacle. My proposal: a rollback of credit card interest rates. Although there’s no reason to do it, lets be generous and let the banks and credit card companies earn three percentage points more from us than they have to pay when they borrow our money from the Federal Reserve. That would knock interest rates down to around 4%. Citibank, which is alive today only because it got $45 billion of taxpayer support, is charging upwards of 15% for its best credit card customers. Most of the other big card companies are doing the same.

Lowering interest rates would provide needed relief for tens of millions of American families, and would jumpstart the economy by stimulating more spending. No doubt some would say that we should not return to the era of “cheap money” when everybody was encouraged to spend more than they had by putting lifestyle improvements on plastic. I’m not advocating fiscal irresponsibility, but right now that argument sounds more than a little patronizing. True, some Americans got in over their heads, but the financial collapse itself was the fault of greed-driven Money Industry speculators, many of whom walked away with millions of dollars in pay and bonuses. So they’re all set; they got theirs – in fact, are still raking it in – but now average Americans are told they need to scale back at a time when many are struggling to put food on the table and might need to use a credit card to pay for a doctor’s visit? Why should Americans pay exorbitant rates to fatten the coffers of the firms that got us into this mess?

I say, roll ‘em back!

About Harvey Rosenfield

Harvey Rosenfield has been fighting to protect consumers and taxpayers against rip-offs and abuse for thirty years. He’s the author of Proposition 103, the landmark insurance reform initiative, which has saved Californians more than $63 billion in insurance premiums.

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