The troubles sound familiar. Borrowers falling behind on their payments. Defaults rising. Huge swaths of loans souring. Investors getting burned. But forget the now-familiar tales of mortgages gone bad. The next horror for beaten-down financial firms is the $950 billion worth of outstanding credit-card debt—much of it toxic.
That's bad news for players like JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC) that have largely sidestepped—and even benefited from—the mortgage mess but have major credit-card operations. They're hardly alone. The consumer debt bomb is already beginning to spray shrapnel throughout the financial markets, further weakening the U.S. economy. "The next meltdown will be in credit cards," says Gregory Larkin, senior analyst at research firm Innovest Strategic Value Advisors. Adds William Black, senior vice-president of Moody's Investors Service's structured finance team: "We still haven't hit the post-recessionary peaks [in credit-card losses], so things will get worse before they get better." What's more, the U.S. Treasury Dept.'s $700 billion mortgage bailout won't be a lifeline for credit-card issuers.
The big firms say they're prepared for the storm. Early last year JPMorgan started reaching out to troubled borrowers, setting up payment programs and making other adjustments to accounts. "We have seen higher credit-card losses," acknowledges JPMorgan spokeswoman Tanya M. Madison. "We are concerned about [it] but believe we are taking the right steps to help our customers and manage our risk."
But some banks and credit-card companies may be exacerbating their problems. To boost profits and get ahead of coming regulation, they're hiking interest rates. But that's making it harder for consumers to keep up. That'll only make tomorrow's pain worse. Innovest estimates that credit-card issuers will take a $41 billion hit from rotten debt this year and a $96 billion blow in 2009.
Those losses, in turn, will wend their way through the $365 billion market for securities backed by credit-card debt. As with mortgages, banks bundle groups of so-called credit-card receivables, essentially consumers' outstanding balances, and sell them to big investors such as hedge funds and pension funds. Big issuers offload roughly 70% of their credit-card debt.
But it's getting harder for banks to find buyers for that debt. Interest rates have been rising on credit-card securities, a sign that investor appetite is waning. To help entice buyers, credit-card companies are having to put up more money as collateral, a guarantee in case something goes wrong with the securities. Mortgage lenders, in sharp contrast, typically aren't asked to do this—at least not yet. With consumers so shaky, now isn't a good time to put more skin in the game. "Costs will go up for issuers," warns Dennis Moroney of the consultancy Tower Group.
There are two substantial differences between credit card backed and mortgage backed securities. One, the market for credit card backed securities is a lot smaller. That's good. Two, whereas mortgage backed securities have at least some underlying value (the homes the mortgage are tied to) credit card backed securities, which consist of unsecured credit card debt, do not. That's bad, because there is in theory at least no bottom value for the security to reach. So the questions are, when do these securities reach the tipping point and begin to dramatically drop off in value, how much damage can they do on their own and more importantly, how many trillions in credit default swaps are tied to these bad securities?