At the rate they're going, banks can't lose


November 20, 1991|By ROGER SIMON

I go into the bank where my certificate of deposit has just matured. I tell the person sitting at the desk that I would like my money.

She asks for the certificate. She asks for identification. She asks for the notice the bank has sent me.

I give her all these things.

She disappears behind a wall for about three minutes. She comes back.

"May I ask what you want this money for?" she asks.

Huh? I say.

"Why do you want the money?" she says. "Why not just let your certificate renew? Do you need the money for a major purchase?"

It occurs to me the bank did not ask me personal questions when I was depositing my money. But I also know it is wrong to get angry at this person. Some supervisor has told her to try to get me to leave my money in the bank.

Your new CD rate, I say in clear, firm tones. It's a percentage point less than other banks. And so I am moving my money elsewhere in order to benefit myself. Which is my right.

Naw, that's not what I tell her. It's the truth, but it's not what I tell her.

Yeah, I mumble, I'm making a major purchase. So I really need the money.

And so she types out the check and I slink out of the bank and go to the bank down the street and deposit it. I feel guilty and I don't know why.

But banks are good at making us feel guilty. Take the latest rhubarb over capping credit-card interest rates.

Capping credit-card interest makes sense.

Banks borrow money at less than 5 percent interest and then turn around and lend it to us at more than 19 percent on our credit cards.

This seems to me like a pretty good deal for the banks. This seems to me like a very good deal for the banks. So good a deal that you might even call it usury, defined by the dictionary as "lending money at an exorbitant rate of interest," and, in most states, a crime.

And if Loanshark Eddie down the street did it, it would be a crime. But if a bank does it, it is called helping America.

The banks are demanding that interest rates on credit cards be kept very high because without such high interest rates, they say, the stock market will crumble and the nation will fall apart. And we should all feel guilty for even asking that credit-card interest be lowered.

Most of us are not too bright when it comes to dealing with banks. In other sectors of the economy, competition really works. The store down the block is selling a six-pack of Pepsi for $1.49, but one across town is selling it for 99 cents? Well, many of us would drive across town and get the bargain.

But when it comes to credit cards, we don't shop around. Right now, there are banks offering VISA and Mastercard interest rates of under 11 percent. Yet many of us are paying more than 19 percent.

Why don't we switch cards? Because we think it will be a real pain and it will mean filling out one of those applications and we don't know how to go about it and, gee, it's just easier to leave things as they are.

Which banks count on. So as interest rates for home mortgages and auto loans and other loans that people actually do shop around for have steadily dropped, interest rates on credit cards have remained astronomical.

Recently, after a request by President Bush, the Senate moved very quickly to put a cap on credit-cardinterest rates. The cap would have moved interest rates down to about 14 percent.

Immediately, the stock market plunged.

Why? Because banks make billions on credit cards (about $4 billion last year) and the thought of banks losing some profit scared Wall Street.

Now, the bankers are saying if interest rates are capped, they will be forced to cancel the credit cards of half their customers. The banks won't be able to afford high risks, the bankers say.

Some consumer groups and some lawmakers say this is nonsense. They say if Americans are a good risk at 19 percent, they are a good risk at 14 percent. They say this is just a scare tactic on the part of the banks.

And it is. And it has worked.

Congress has pulled back. The president has pulled back. And so we will continue to get soaked.

Bankers lent money to commercial real estate developers and got taken to the cleaners.

Bankers lent money to sharks like Donald Trump and got made fools of.

But when bankers loan money on credit cards, they make a killing.

Could it be that the bankers have finally found someone dumber than they are?

Yeah. You and me.

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