Most of the leading U.S. credit card issuers—portfolios of more than $500 million— reported y/y growth in their average credit card outstandings in the first quarter of 2017.
However, all of these issuers are also experiencing significant growth in credit card net charge-offs (gross charge-offs minus recoveries). Of the 19 issuers:
- 10 reported y/y charge-off increases of more than 20%.
- For 17, charge-off rises outpaced outstandings growth.
These recent significant increases in charge offs follow an extended period of declining charge-off rates in the aftermath of the 2008-9 Financial Crisis. During the 2010-2015 period, issuers tightened up their credit card underwriting considerably, and consumers moved away from racking up high levels of credit card debt. According to the FDIC, the credit card net charge-off rate fell from a recessionary high of more than 13% in 1Q10 to less than 3% in 3Q15. Since then, the rate rose slightly—to 3.16% in 4Q16—but still well below levels seen prior to the Financial Crisis. And five of the issuers in the chart above (Chase, Bank of America, Discover, BB&T and SunTrust) still had net charge-off rates of less than 3% in 1Q17.
Even though current charge-off rates are low by historic averages, issuers must be careful not to allow charge-off momentum to grow to a problematic level. One area of potential concern: many leading credit card issuers are reporting strongest outstandings growth for their low FICO Score segments, which tend to have significantly higher credit risk profiles.
Of course, when focusing on growing credit card loans, issuers accept that charge offs will rise. However, they can help to ensure that these charge offs remain at a manageable level by:
- Maintaining underwriting discipline
- Avoiding a race to the bottom in credit card pricing; it’s notable that, according to CreditCards.com, the average credit card APR reached a record high of 15.80%)
- Providing content and tools to educate consumers on how to use credit cards responsibly
- Continuing to market credit cards as both payment tools and sources of credit
In a recent blog, EMI discussed some key takeaways from leading credit card issuers’ 3Q16 earnings, one of which was the relatively strong growth in credit card outstandings. In this blog, we look deeper into outstandings trends to identify what FICO Score segments issuers are focusing on to grow outstandings.
Firstly, it is notable that leading issuers reported y/y growth in credit card outstandings across multiple FICO Score segments. However, there were important variations among the issuer categories:
- Largest issuers: The following chart looks at y/y changes in outstandings by FICO Score for both Bank of America and Chase. (Citibank also published data on the FICO Score composition of its credit card outstandings, but these were skewed by the acquisition of the Costco portfolio from American Express, so we did not include Citibank in the analysis.) Bank of America generated low growth across most segments, as it struggles to grow overall outstandings following a protracted period of declines. Chase’s growth was concentrated in the 660+ FICO Score segment, boosted by the recent launches of both Sapphire Preferred and Freedom Unlimited.
- Monolines: Capital One and Discover both generated strong growth in the lower FICO Score (660 and under) segment. This segment now accounts for 36% of Capital One’s total credit card outstandings, significantly higher than Discover (18%) and Chase (14%).
- Wells Fargo: in spite of the fallout from the recent fake-account scandal, Wells Fargo continued to growth credit card outstandings in 3Q16. It reported strong growth across most FICO Score segments, with particularly strong growth in the subprime segment. However, it continues to struggle to grow superprime outstandings, as it lacks a card that can truly compete against high-profile affluent cards like American Express Gold and Platinum, and Chase Sapphire Preferred.
- Regional Bank Card Issuers: SunTrust, Regions and PNC all reported strong overall growth. SunTrust reported very strong growth across all segments. Regions’ outstandings growth was concentrated in the low-prime and subprime segments. However, PNC’s outstandings growth was concentrated in higher-FICO Score segments, driven by the April 2016 launch of the Premier Travelers Visa Signature® card.
As issuers seek to continue to increase overall credit card loan growth, it is likely that they will continue to focus on multiple FICO Score segments. They will also be looking to identify underperforming segments, diagnose reasons for this underperformance (e.g., deficiencies in cards, offers or communications targeting these segments), and develop initiatives to improve performance. Similarly, issuers will want to identify if they are overly dependent on certain segments for outstandings growth or share, and whether this dependence leaves them vulnerable to changes in the macroeconomic or competitive environments.
EMI’s review of 3Q 2016 financials for the largest U.S. bank and credit card issuers revealed several trends:
Acceleration in outstandings growth. Average outstandings rose 6% y/y in 3Q16 for the 13 issuers in the study; this growth rate marks an increase from previous quarters (3% in 2Q16 and 2% in 1Q16).
- American Express reported a 14% y/y decline, due to the loss of the Costco and JetBlue portfolios; excluding these portfolios, it grew loans by 11%.
- Bank of America reported no change in average outstandings, ending a protracted period of loan declines due in large part to divestitures.
- Regional bank card issuers continue to focus their attention on cross-selling credit cards to existing clients. Regions grew outstandings by 11% and reported that its credit card penetration rate rose 130 basis points (bps) y/y to 18.2%.
Continued volume growth. EMI analyzed volume data for 8 leading issuers, and found cumulative y/y growth of 9% in 3Q16.
- American Express’s sale of the Costco card portfolio to Citi led to a 15% decline in its card volume, while Citi’s volume rose by 57%.
- Issuers are launching new rewards cards and enhancing existing rewards programs to drive additional volume. Discover reported that its rewards costs rose 13% y/y to $368 million in 3Q16, and its rewards rate rose by 13 basis points to 1.20%. However, Discover has been struggling to grow volumes in recent quarter, with y/y growth of just 2% in 3Q16, down from 4% in 1Q16 and 3% in 2Q16.
Ramp up of card account production. Related to—and encouraged by—the growth in outstandings, issuers are ramping up new card acquisition.
- Bank of America issued 1.32 million new U.S. consumer credit cards in 3Q16, the strongest quarterly performance since 2008.
- Chase benefited from the launch new cards (Sapphire Reserve and Freedom Preferred) to grow new card production 35% y/y to 2.7 million. Chase reported at the BancAnalysts Association of Boston Conference this week that it opened more than 1 million new Freedom Unlimited accounts in the five months following its launch.
- Issuers are investing more in marketing in order to drive growth. American Express grew its marketing and promotion spend 10% y/y for the first 9 months of the year, to $2.4 billion.
Charge-off rates remain very low. For many issuers, net charge-off rates continue to operate at or near historic lows, with seven issuers reporting rates below 3%.
- There is some evidence of upward movement in charge-off rates as issuers chase growth. 8 of the 12 issuers in the chart below reported y/y rises. And most issuers are reporting y/y rises in 30+ day delinquency rate (which have traditionally been an indicator of future charge-offs).
- However, issuers expect that rates will not rise significantly in the coming quarters. For example, Chase reported a charge-off rate of 2.51% in 3Q16, and projects that this rate will rise to about 2.75% in 2017.
- Capital One did report a 66 bps y/y rise in its charge-off rate; this is related to the fact that it is continuing to target low-FICO segments; the <660 FICO score segment accounted for 36% of Capital One’s outstandings at the end of 3Q16, up from 34% at the end of 3Q15.