Top Credit Card Issuers’ 4Q13 Financials: Takeaways and Implications

A scan of 4Q13 and full-year 2013 financials for 13 leading U.S. credit card issuers revealed the following trends in outstandings, volume and credit quality:


Average outstandings continued to decline y/y for the top 4 issuers, but rose in other issuer categories:

  • Although outstandings for the largest issuers continue to decline, there is evidence that these issuers are now at a inflection point, where growth in new vintages is starting to exceed declines in run-off portfolios.  Chase claimed that it reached this inflection point in the second quarter of 2013, and expects to generate moderate outstandings growth this year.  Bank of America is pointing to strong growth in account production, with 1 million new accounts opened in each of the past two quarters.
  • Discover and American Express both increased outstandings by 4% y/y; this led to net interest income growth, of 10% and 8%, respectively.
  • Wells Fargo grew average outstandings 8%, as it grew new accounts by 29% y/y .  Credit card penetration of Wells Fargo retail banking households rose from 27% in 1Q11 to 37% in 4Q13.

As there is growing consensus that the economy will grow robustly in 2014, improved consumer confidence should translate into increased credit appetite, which issuers will look to meet with targeted campaigns and pricing (on introductory rates rather than go-to APRs).  In addition, in recent years, issuers have focused on higher FICOs (which we discussed in a recent blog), but now may look to develop campaigns, product and pricing for other segments.


The 7 issuers reporting annual volume data generated an increase of 8% between 2012 and 2013.  Growth in volume continues to outstrip outstandings, as debt-wary consumers continue to see the credit card as more of a payment than a borrowing tool.

  • In general, issuers grew volume from a combination of new account production and increased existing cardholder spending.
  • American Express’ 9% growth was boosted by a 12% increase in small business spending, marking the fourth consecutive quarter of double-digit growth.

In 2014, issuers will be looking to benefit from growth in consumer spending as the economic recovery takes shape, so we should expect a continuation of tiered earnings in rewards programs, as well as communications and offers targeted at key stages of the cardholder life cycle (card acquisition, activation, retention and ongoing card usage).

Credit Quality

Charge-off rates for many issuers are at or below historic lows, with all issuers reporting 4Q13 rates below 4%.

  • In the aftermath of the financial crisis, some of the leading issuers experienced huge spikes in their charge-off rates.  The charge-off rate for Bank of America’s U.S. Card unit rose to more than 14% in the third quarter of 2009, while the rate for Citigroup’s Citi-Branded Cards-North America unit peaked at 10.78% in 2Q10.  The chart above shows that charge-off rates for these issuers have returned to normal levels.
  • Low charge-off rates—and the expectation that these rates will remain low—enable issuers to maintain reduced loan loss provisions.  This in turn boosts profitability even as issuers struggle to grow revenues.  Some of the leading issuers reported strong y/y declines in provisions in 4Q13, including Chase (-46%) and American Express (-27%).

As issuers push for outstandings growth in 2014, the expectation is that charge-off rates will rise.  However, there are indications that rises in charge-off rates will be moderate.  30+ day delinquency rates (leading indicator for charge-off rates) continue to fall.  In addition, the credit card sector has changed fundamentally in recent years; neither consumers nor issuers see credit cards want to return to the borrowing/lending culture that pertained prior to the financial crisis.

Continued improvement in credit quality metrics for leading bank card issuers

All of the leading bank card issuers reported continued improvement in key credit quality metrics for their credit card portfolios in 1Q11, as seen in the following charts.

As a result of these improvement, banks have slashed their provision for credit losses, which has significant boosted profitability.

However, banks’ credit card outstandings are continuing to decline.  In reporting financials, a number of banks reported that they expect outstandings to grow in the second half of the year, and in arecent months, we have seen signs of more aggressive acquisition activity (such as growing direct mail volume and re-appearance of lengthly 0% balance transfer offers).  However, banks will certainly be very cautious in their efforts to grow lending in the coming quarters, as they seek to avoid any repitition of the over-exhuberant lending climate taht prevailed in the middle of the last decade.

Quarterly Card Issuer Financials Reveal Positive (and some Negative) Trends

All of the main U.S. credit card issuers have now reported second quarter 2011 financials, which reveal some interesting trends:

Volumes: In recent quarters, card purchase volumes have grown significantly as issuers have focused attention on positioning cards as spending rather than lending tools. Most issuers continued to grow volumes in 2Q12, although in some cases, the rate of growth was lower than in recent quarters. Wells Fargo (+15%), U.S. Bank (+13%), Chase (+12%) and Capital One (+11%, excluding the impact of the HSBC portfolio acquisition) all reported double-digit year-on-year spending increases. American Express, which has typically led the industry in volume growth, reported a y/y rise in spending of 9%, down from 12% in 1Q12. And both Bank of America and Citibank reported no growth in purchase volumes. Issuers will continue to push volume growth in the coming quarters, as they continue to seek to take payments share from cash and checks.

Outstandings: In recent years, issuers reacted to the financial crisis by significantly deleveraging their credit card portfolios. Now there are signs that this process has bottomed out and a number of issuers are growing outstandings. The largest portfolios continue to decline, with Bank of America (-10%), Citibank (-3%) and Chase (-1%) all reporting year-on-year declines in end-of-period outstandings. On the other hand, banks with smaller portfolios reported y/y growth, including SunTrust (+39%), PNC (+10%), Wells Fargo (+7%), U.S. Bank and Fifth Third (both +5%). In addition, American Express (+5%) and Discover (+4%) both grew outstandings. The prospects for outstandings growth in the industry in general in the quarters will be dependent on general economic conditions, as well as the extent to which issuers want to push loan growth in order to grow revenues.

Charge-Off and Delinquency Rates: As issuers reduced outstandings following the financial crisis in 2008, they also set about tackling charge-offs, which spiked spectacularly in 2008 and 2009. Charge-off rates have declined significantly over the past two years, and in many cases are now below normalized levels. There has been a widespread expectation in recent quarters that the sharp declines in charge-off rates would bottom out; however, the most recent quarter continued the pattern of charge-off rate declines. All of the main issuers reduced charge-off rates by more than 100 bps y/y, and only one main issuer (U.S. Bank) reported a q/q increase in its charge-off rate. American Express, Discover and Capital One reported charge-off rates below 3% in 2Q12. Bank of America remains the issuer with the highest charge-off rate (at 5.27% in 2Q12), but it is notable that this rate is down from levels of more than 14% in 2009. There is an expectation that charge-offs will continue to decline in the coming quarter, given that delinquency rates (which are an indicator of future charge-offs) are also continuing to decline. Some issuers are anticipating that credit quality indices will bottom out or even grow, in particular if the issuers relax underwriting standards to grow outstandings. So, a number of leading issuers are increasing their provision for loan losses.

Revenue: This remains the big negative for issuers, with downward pressure on both net interest income (for those issuers who are continuing to experience outstandings declines) and noninterest income (from the ongoing impact of the CARD Act, which makes it more difficult to generate fee income). Issuers with lower outstandings (Bank of America, Citibank and Chase) reported revenue declines, but issuers who grew outstandings in 2Q12 managed to grow revenues. American Express increased revenue 5%, with net interest income rising 6%. Discover grew total revenues 6%, with a 4% decline in noninterest income more than offset by a 10% growth in net interest income. Prospects for revenue growth in the coming quarters will be very much dependent on the ability to grow outstandings, given the limited scope for generating fee income.