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US credit card firms seek to limit crackdown

US credit card companies are expected to use a White House meeting to put their best foot forward, despite an avalanche of negative publicity, aiming to blunt a congressional push for tougher regulations.

Fees and interest rates will be topics at the meeting set for Thursday between 14 credit card company executives, President Barack Obama, National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers, and other government officials.

Executives from Bank of America Corp, American Express Co, Citigroup Inc, Wells Fargo & Co, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Capital One Financial Corp, MasterCard Inc and Visa Inc are expected to be at the meeting.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Monday the discussion will include the transparency of the credit card companies' lending practices, and the interest rates and fees they charge.

“The president believes that we can increase transparency involved, cut down on these deceptive practices, and ensure that any system that is involving fees is done in a way that is fair,” Gibbs said.

Lenders are expected to argue that they are asking customers to contact them if they lose their jobs or feel under financial stress to try to renegotiate the credit card debt - even by suspending fees or interest rates.

Scott Valentin, an analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey, said credit card companies could also eliminate some late payments, or over-limit fees, to please Washington.

“The card companies are sensitive to what is going on around them, and public perception, and the government actions that are being contemplated, and are trying to put on a good face,” he said.

Credit card issuers have received over $120 billion in taxpayer funds since October, money the government has asked them to use to expand lending.

But with US credit card defaults at record highs, lenders are trying to protect themselves by tightening credit limits and closing accounts, actions that have infuriated lawmakers, consumers, and even triggered a New York state attorney general inquiry.

”Some of the very banks we rescued compound the hardships of ordinary Americans with unfair fees and interest charges,” said Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has co-authored credit card legislation.

Citigroup Chief Financial Officer Ned Kelly said in a conference call Friday with analysts to discuss the bank's quarterly results that the credit card business has shifted from growth to risk management.

He added that higher prices on credit cards helped the bank, one of the largest US credit card issuers, to cushion its losses.

In some cases, public anger has forced banks to withdraw fee hikes. JPMorgan stopped charging a new monthly fee to cardholders and agreed to refund the money collected, while Bank of America suspended a planned increase in some fees.

The White House meeting is scheduled for a day after a US House of Representatives committee is set to consider legislation aimed at curbing deceptive billing and interest rate practices.

The Federal Reserve tightened rules on credit-card practices in December, but the proposed legislation would take that further: it would give customers more time to pay their bills, limit interest rate increases, add more regulations, and ban credit cards access to people under 21 or 18 years of age.

Credit card companies are concerned that the legislation could become a way to severely restrict their discretion to charge fees, especially at a time when banks are struggling to emerge from the financial crisis.

“Our expectation is that discussions will involve broad-based economic factors such as purchasing trends, delinquencies, and challenges ... that affect the funding of credit card loans,” the American Bankers Association (ABA) spokesman Peter Garuccio said.

Valentin said credit card companies would prefer to stick to the Fed's rules, but could scrap some more fees to meet government demands.

“The industry would like to avoid what is being discussed now, but it... has to make some type of deference to meet what the administration and Congress want,” Valentin said.

He said further limits on interest rates and fees like those proposed by Congress could cost the industry $12 billion in revenue per year, with 70% coming from fewer interest and 30% from lower fees.

The ABA trade group, which represents the biggest credit card companies, has warned that more rules could make it more difficult to price a customer's risk level and therefore reduce the availability of credit.

“The administration clearly wants to keep the money flowing to the consumer, and the credit card companies are trying to protect themselves, hopefully there will be a middle ground some place,” said Anton Schutz, president of Mendon Capital. (Reuters)