Despite some promising signs about credit quality, the hand-wringing in the credit card business is far from over.
For the first time in three years, quarterly credit card chargeoff rates have dropped. In securitized portfolios rated by Standard & Poor's Corp. the figure fell to 6.74% in the third quarter, from 6.91% in the second.
Standard & Poor's said chargeoffs for October alone remained stable, at 6.61%, slightly lower than the September figure of 6.66%.
The third-quarter chargeoff rate is still well above the first quarter's 6.55% and the 1996 third quarter's 5.44%. But it does represent a break in the upward spiral that has persisted since 1994.
Delinquency and bankruptcy statistics remain on a historic plateau, and bankers and industry analysts say it is not quite time to breathe easy. Standard & Poor's placed the industry's third-quarter delinquency rate at 5.2%.
The American Bankers Association reported in September that second- quarter delinquencies stood at 3.69%, higher than the first quarter's 3.51% but lower than the record of 3.72% in the fourth quarter of 1996. The ABA, whose numbers are typically lower than Standard & Poor's, will release third-quarter statistics next month.
Some analysts say they have taken the promising chargeoff numbers to mean that steps banks have been taking to tighten credit standards are beginning to pay off. Others perceive a mere seasonal dip. There may just be no single, right answer to the question of credit card loan quality.
Some conclusions appear contradictory. Some people blame higher losses on the rise in direct-mail solicitations, which hit a record 881 million pieces in the second quarter, according to BAIGlobal Inc. of Tarrytown, N.Y.
Others say the issuers sending the most mail-such as Banc One Corp.'s First USA subsidiary, MBNA Corp., and Citicorp - have loss rates regarded as under control. First USA's third-quarter chargeoff rate was 6.53%, Citicorp's 6.03%, and MBNA's was one of the best, at 4.83%. By Standard & Poor's reckoning, all three companies' securitized portfolios posted delinquencies that were below the industry's third-quarter average.
"There is an inverse relationship between mail volumes and credit quality," said Moshe A. Orenbuch, senior research analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. "The fact that some issuers did better than others in this cycle shows that they understand this better than others."
The three largest mailers, Mr. Orenbuch said, understand the dynamics of sending out solicitations and have "adjusted their credit quality process on the back end so they won't get into the same trouble again."
Alison Emmerich, an analyst at Standard & Poor's, disagreed, saying "issuers are continuing to gear up and are, in fact, going after some less- creditworthy cardholders." She said, "They're doing a little bottom fishing."
With the advent of platinum cards, mail offerings rose 39% from the first to the second quarter, according to the latest statistics from BAIGlobal. The response rate was a relatively low 1.2%, and responses platinum solicitations was a lower 1.0%.
Standard & Poor's found it significant that some issuers were posting better chargeoff and delinquency results than others, but did not make any correlation with mailing habits. The rating agency said some issuers were helped by the fact that late summer chargeoffs tend to be low. Discover Card's, for example, were 6.6% in August but 8.3% in September.
Other issuers that came in high for the latest quarter were First Chicago NBD Corp. (8.83%), Banc One (8.73%), Capital One Financial Corp. (8.26%), and Discover (7.56%).
Standard & Poor's analysts said the industry numbers would stabilize in the fourth quarter but would probably not improve.
Keith Leggett, senior economist at the American Bankers Association, offered an explanation for the discrepancies among issuers: "Some people have decided it's better just to move forward and write it off their books, and others are not as likely to do that. They don't necessarily want to take the hit against their earnings at that time."
In a separate area of debate, analysts disagree over how burdened consumers really are by credit card debt and how that will be affected by changes in the economy.
Mr. Leggett said consumer credit will grow less than 5% this year, compared with almost 15% annually in 1994 and 1995. He said the slowing was reflected in October's weak retail sales.
"Consumers are kind of satiated with the amount of debt that they have," Mr. Leggett said. "I don't think there's a lot of room for them to take on more." He said the percentage of disposable income consumers pay to meet credit obligations is high, at 17%.
But a recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago saw less of a problem. It said that the household debt burden did not change much between 1992 and 1995 as consumers substituted secured debts for unsecured ones.
"Increases in credit card debt service of lower-income households have been offset to a large extent by reductions in the servicing of installment debt," the report concluded.
Depending on whom one listens to, consumers are either flush because there is little unemployment and inflation, or they are mired in accumulated debt.
Ms. Emmerich of Standard & Poor's said recently announced downsizings- such as 10,000 layoffs at Eastman-Kodak Co. and 9,000 at Citicorp-could be a leading indicator of recession. If wages also stagnate, credit card loss and delinquency rates could skyrocket.
"There are a lot of people who have downsized their lifestyle and are using their credit card to make up for what they had in the past," Ms. Emmerich said.
Michael R. Dean, director of Fitch Investors Service Inc.'s credit card group, agreed the layoffs are an ominous sign. He said the economy is still reeling from the last major round of corporate downsizing, in 1992 and 1993.
"Corporate executives in high-salary positions who were unable to find similar positions just took on debt because it was available," Mr. Dean said. "That drove the bankruptcy rate through the roof."
But Mr. Orenbuch dismissed the layoff concerns, saying, "Employment is at an all-time peak."
He even has bullish predictions: "We've been saying for a number of months that the environment is beginning to improve for credit card issuers. Not every one is experiencing improvement-just under half the issuers we track had improved losses in the third quarter-but I think you'll see a continuing trend of more issuers with stable or improving numbers."
Susan L. Roth, vice president at Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, also was "cautiously optimistic." In a report on the credit industry she said she saw "clear signs of moderation in the rate of credit quality erosion. "The consumer's balance sheet is stronger."
The business cycle is more troubling to economists like Mr. Leggett, who said, "When you look at expansion, this one is very long in the tooth."
"Given the level of risk that still exists in the credit card industry, we're not likely to show significant improvement any time soon," Ms. Emmerich said. "Average credit lines are rising and consumers' debt-to- income ratios remain high."
Tanya Azarchs, another Standard & Poor's analyst, pointed to a few hopeful signs. She said a mortgage refinancing boom was prompting homeowners to convert credit card debt into home equity debt.
Ms. Azarchs also said gross adjusted chargeoff rates-that is, the chargeoff trend lagging receivables by one year-have "definitely shown a decline for almost every single issuer."
But she still doubts the chargeoff numbers will continue to improve. "There is not a whole lot of reason from macroeconomics or changes in the competitive scene for that to occur," Ms. Azarchs said. "The only think we can say is it looks like it peaked, not that it's improving."