Reasons for Optimism in Credit Card Issuer 3Q13 Financials; What are the Marketing Implications?

The leading U.S. credit card issuers continued to exhibit trends that have become established in recent quarters, but there were also some signs of change:

  • Outstandings: Average credit card outstandings continued to decline y/y, with the big four issuers (Chase, Bank of America, Citibank and Capital One) reporting portfolio decreases.  However, both credit card “monolines” (American Express and Discover) and some regional bank card issuers reported relatively strong growth.  Even among the big three issuers, there were indications of growth: Chase reported a 6% y/y rise in new accounts (1.7 million); and Bank of America new accounts rose from 850,000 in 3Q12 to more than 1 million in 3Q13.

  • Volume: Reflecting the change in the industry in recent years from a lend-centric to a spend-centric model, most issuers reported strong y/y volume growth.  Wells Fargo volume rose 14%, as new accounts grew 11% and  credit card penetration of its retail bank households increased to 35%.  And it is looking to further propel volume growth with its recently-launched rewards program.  Bank of America and Chase also translated strong new account generation into double-digit volume growth.  Discover had relatively low volume growth of 3%, but is aiming to increase volume and outstandings at the same rate.

  • Credit quality: charge-off rates continue to decline for most issuers.  Of the 12 issuers who provided charge-off rate data, 10 have rates below 4%, and three issuers (American Express, Chase and Discover) have rates below 3%.  As a result, provisions for loan losses continued to fall for most issuers, which boosted profitability.  For 30+ day delinquency rates, issuers reported y/y declines, but q/q increases.

We expect that, as the economic recovery continues, consumer confidence will grow, as will their willingness to take on credit card debt.  This may lead to increases in charge-off rates from these historically low levels, but issuers will feel that the resulting growth in noninterest and net interest income will more than offset any rises in provisions for loan losses and noninterest expenses, such as marketing costs.

However, as issuers look to ramp up credit card marketing, they need to factor in the fundamental changes in consumer perceptions and usage of their credit cards.  These changes impact various elements of the marketing mix, including:

  • Positioning: Following the financial crisis, issuers shifted away from positioning credit cards as easy ways to access credit, and towards credit cards as an efficient payments method.  As consumer demand for credit recovers, issuers may need to adapt positioning once again to have a balance between a lend-centric and spend-centric focus.
  • Product: Issuers continue to target more affluent cardholders, so they will need to have a card portfolio that is appropriate for this market.  This explains why both Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank recently entered into card-issuing deals with American Express.
  • Pricing: As the CARD Act places many restrictions on issuers’ ability to change APRs, we expect that there will not be huge price competition in APRs, but rather the focus will be on lengthy zero-rate introductory offers, in particular on balance transfers.
  • Loyalty: Issuers will continue to enhance rewards programs (and accompanying offers) to drive activation, retention and ongoing spending.  To maintain control over costs, issuers are looking to develop more merchant-funded programs, and this trend may gain traction as issuers develop mobile wallets that will enable consumers to manage loyalty programs on their smartphones as well as receive specific merchant offers at the point of sale.
  • Channel: There has been much coverage of the fact that branches are rapidly losing share for everyday banking transactions.  Many banks are looking to redefine the role of the branch, in particular to leverage its potential as a key sales channel.  Wells Fargo recently reported that 80% of new card accounts are opened in its branches.  The online channel has also become a key credit card sales channel: Chase reported that 53% of new credit card accounts were acquired online in 3Q13.

Bank of America BankAmericard Basic Visa sign of things to come?

Bank of America recently launched the BankAmericard Basic Visa, featuring a single APR of Prime +14% (17.25%) on purchases, balance transfers and cash advances, and no default rate.  The card also has no over-limit fee, a flat late fee of $39, no introductory offer, and no universal default.

Given the arrival of new credit card legislation in the coming months, this type of pricing could become the norm in the coming quarters.  The card launch also reflects a bank-wide emphasis on clarity.  In April 2009, the bank introduced the Clarity Commitment for mortgages, and extended this to home equity loans in November.  It also recently launched online advertising, promoting “clear, easy-to-understand products.”

This card is a part of a suite of BankAmericard-branded credit cards, which also include Visa, Cash Rewards Visa Signature and Power Rewards Visa Signature.  These cards have an APR range (10.99%-19.99% on Visa, and 12.99%-20.99% on Card Rewards and Power Rewards).  And the three cards have a 24.24% rate on cash advances and 27.24% default rate.

Growing proliferation of credit card annual fees

Bank of America reported in mid-October that it plans to impose annual fees on some of its credit cards.  In the short term , this will probably create some bad press for the bank.  However, all of the leading card issuers are overhauling their pricing models to address new card legislation as well as huge increases in charge offs and provisions for credit losses.  So, we should expect greater proliferation of annual fees, as well as lower incidence of introductory offers and higher APRs.  Some examples below of cards from leading issuers that feature annual fees (this list does not include secured cards, many of which come with annual fees):

  • Capital One No Hassle Cash Rewards: $39 annual fee
  • Fifth Third Platinum Prime MasterCard: $89 annual fee (although note that the APR on this card is Prime + 0%
  • PNC points Visa Signature: $75 annual fee (waived with $20,000 in annual spending on the card)
  • U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards Visa: $49 annual fee (waived first year, and waived any year when at least $24,000 is charged to the card)
  • Escape by Discover: $60 annual fee

And of course, American Express has increased marketing of its charge cards, all of which have annual fees.

Ironically, Wells Fargo appears to have dropped the $19 annual fee that came with its credit card rewards program.  Rather than market an optional rewards program to cardholders, it simply promotes rewards and non-rewards credit cards.  Wells Fargo still imposes an annual fee (of $12) for an optional rewards program with its check card, and does allow customers to pool rewards earned on check and credit card spending.