Growth Remains Elusive For Leading U.S. Credit Card Issuers

EMI analysis of the largest credit card issuer financial results for 1Q13 reveals the following trends:

  • Outstandings (11 issuers reporting, analysis excludes Capital One, which acquired the HSBC card portfolio in 2012, so its growth rate would skew the data): A weighted average of 11 leading credit cards issuers shows that average credit card outstandings fell 2% year-over-year (y/y) in 1Q13. The three largest issuers – Chase, Bank of America and Citi – all reported y/y declines.  However, outstandings growth came from Wells Fargo (who reported that credit card penetration of retail banking households rose from 30% in 1Q12 to 34% in 1Q13), regional banks with relatively small portfolios (e.g., PNC, SunTrust and Fifth Third), as well as “monolines” (American Express and Discover). These outstandings trends bear out the industry predictions we made in a blog at the start of 2013.

  • Volumes (8 issuers reporting): leading issuers grew credit card volume 6% y/y in 1Q13, which is relatively consistent with recent quarters. However, growth rates have moderated from the 2010-2011 levels, when issuers were overwhelming focused on building volumes. Wells Fargo led the way with a 14% volume growth rate, driven by an 18% rise in new consumer credit card accounts.
  • Revenues and expenses (5 issuers reporting): Revenues rose 2% y/y, led by Discover (+11%) and American Express (+5%). The lack of outstandings growth means that net interest income remains relatively anemic, with a rise of 1% y/y.  Noninterest income grew 5%, with relatively healthy growth rates from American Express, Discover and Bank of America. Noninterest expenses fell 1%, with both Chase and Bank of America reporting significant declines (reductions of 8% and 7%, respectively). Provisions for loan losses rose 5%, albeit from very low levels in 1Q12.
  • Charge-off rates (11 issuers reporting): The weighted average charge-off rate for these 11 issuers was 3.62%, down 65 basis points (bps) y/y, but up 5 bps q/q. 10 issuers reported charge-off rate y/y declines.  The exception was Capital One, which acquired the HSBC credit card portfolio (with a higher charge-off rate) in 2012.  Compared to 4Q12, 10 issuers reported charge-off rate increases and the other two were unchanged, indicating that the era of charge-off rate declines may be coming to an end.
  • 30+ day delinquency rates (8 issuers reporting): 7 of the 8 issuers providing 30+ day delinquency rate data reported y/y declines. As with the charge-off rate, the exception is Capital One. Interestingly, 7 of the 8 issuers reported q/q declines.  The exception was American Express, whose 30+ day delinquency rate was unchanged.  So, while the period of charge-off rate declines may be ending, the continued decline in delinquency rates will moderate charge-off rate increases.

Credit Metrics for U.S. Card Issuers Continue to Improve

A study of recently-published financials for the leading U.S. credit card issuers reveals that their charge-off rates continue to decline, and that this trend looks set to continue in the coming quarters.

The following table summarizes 1Q12 managed credit card charge-off rates for 11 of the leading U.S. card issuers.  Ten of the eleven issuers reported year-on-year charge-off rate declines of more than 200 bps. The exception was American Express, which had the lowest rate.  The largest decline came from SunTrust, whose rate fell from 8.68% in 1Q11 to 4.83% in 1Q12. Seven of the eleven reported quarterly declines in their charge-off rates.

Of course, many industry observers are questioning when and at what level charge-off rate declines will bottom out.  Trends in 30+ day delinquency rates typically are a predictor of trends in charge-offs, and it is notable that of the seven issuers who published 30+ day delinquency rate data in the most recent quarter, all reported both year-on-year and quarterly declines.

Therefore, we should expect charge-off rates to continue to decline in the coming quarters. However, some issuers are now at or below historic averages (for example, Discover claimed that its charge-off and delinquency rates are at 25-year lows), so will have less scope for further declines.  In addition, these low charge-off rates may encourage some issuers to loosen underwriting criteria in order to grow loans, which can generate some upward pressure on charge-off rates.  Card portfolio acquisitions and disposals can also have an impact on charge-off rates; Capital One reported in its quarterly financials that it expects the acquisition of the HSBC card portfolio to raise charge-off rates by 75 bps.

Credit quality continues to improve for leading U.S. card issuers

The leading U.S. credit card issuers continue to report strong improvements in their net charge-off rates.

  • Of the 11 issuers analyzed, eight had 3Q11 net charge-off rates below 5%.  Four had rates below 4%, with American Express leading the industry, at 2.6%
  • Over the past 12 months, eight issuers reduced rates by more than three percentage points (300 basis points)
  • Seven issuers reported rate declines of more than 100 bps between 2Q11 and 3Q11

Issuers also reported strong year-on-year improvements in 30+ day delinquency rates, although the quarterly trend indicates that these declines may be bottoming out. 

  • Five of the seven issuers analyzed had 30+ day delinquency rates below 3%
  • Six of the seven issuers reported triple-digit y/y declines in delinquency rates. The largest decline was reported by Bank of America (178 bps), which still has the highest delinquency rate among these seven issuers
  • Between 2Q11 and 3Q11, delinquency rates for two issuers (American Express U.S. Card and U.S. Bank) were unchanged.  Capital One’s 30+ day delinquency rate rose 32 bps in the most recent quarter

The strong declines in charge-off and delinquency rates have enabled issuers to significantly reduce their provisions for credit losses, which have boosted profitability.  However, with delinquency rate declines leveling off, it is expected that reductions in charge-off rates and loss provisions will also abate in the coming quarter.

Therefore, issuers will increasingly look towards revenue growth drivers to maintain and grow profitability.  On the one hand, they will seek to continue to encourage cardholders to increase spending on their cards, which drives up noninterest income.  In addition, with charge-off rates now at relatively low levels, and with revenue growth remaining anemic, credit card issuers may be more inclined in the coming quarters to seek to build card outstandings and drive net interest income, perhaps through a combination of easing underwriting standards, offering strong introductory offers on balance transfers, and even reducing APRs.