A public advocacy group has assigned consumers and the financial industry equal blame for a record run-up in debt and warned many households will run into difficulties making ends meet.
In a report released Tuesday, the Consumer Federation of America expressed alarm that revolving card debt, the biggest category of installment lending, has been growing at double-digit rates for the past four years.
The federation strongly suggested that lenders tighten the spigot, only to prompt a storm of criticism from industry interests.
"Any suggestion to limit the number and type of credit card offers is anticonsumer and anticompetitive," said American Bankers Association chief economist James Chessen.
"To suggest any kind of cap or limitation flies in the face of competition" and would hurt the economy, said Visa U.S.A. chief economist Thomas A. Layman.
"No one forced debtors to accept the cards and spend on them," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, an umbrella organization for numerous independent consumer organizations. "But issuers must also accept responsibility because of their extensive and relentless efforts to persuade consumers to accept and use cards."
The Washington-based federation appealed to both sides to cut back- lenders on the marketing and consumers on their credit takedowns.
The federation wants card issuers to go beyond their recent tightening of credit criteria by restricting offers to low-income people who may not be able to handle more credit. Mr. Brobeck suggested card offers should go primarily to households with no more than a 20% ratio of credit lines to income.
Lenders "have information that would allow them to place such limits," Mr. Brobeck said. "If creditors refuse to do so, then Congress or state legislatures should consider taking this action."
Mr. Chessen of the ABA said banks have tightened credit standards for five straight quarters, and one-fourth of card issuing banks have reduced credit limits.
"Lots of issuers including us tightened (credit) scores more than a year ago," said Collin G. McKenny, senior vice president of Star Banc Corp., Cincinnati.
Charles Albright, chief credit officer of Household International, said, "Never would we make an offer ... where we thought we were putting a customer literally over the edge. What we're trying to do with all our campaigns is, at minimum, trade market share with another credit grantor to move their piece of plastic out of the wallet and to move ours into it.
"That means we as an industry have to be smarter at what's going on in consumers' wallets as they continuously build up more relationships."
The Consumer Federation of America estimated 60 million households revolved debt in 1996, spending $374 billion to $396 billion. Each of those households carried $6,000 to $7,000 in average debt, paying more than $1,000 in interest.
Behavioral Analysis Inc. said Tuesday that the number of credit card offers in the mail decreased last year by 400 million, to 2.3 billion. "It has declined, but it's still a pretty hefty number, " said Lisa Itzkowitz, the Tarrytown, N.Y., firm's marketing director.
The firm said 14% of solicitations went to those earning less than $20,000, versus 42% to households earning more than $50,000.
A Federal Reserve study showed one-fourth of households with incomes less than $10,000 had borrowed money. The borrower percentage rose with income to peak at 63% between $50,000 and $100,000 of income.
Ruth Susswein, executive director of Bankcard Holders of America, said the volume of offers is less of a concern than who lenders are targeting.
"Card issuers repeatedly tell consumers, 'We will make it worth your while to carry debt,'" she said. "Yet these same issuers disapprovingly shake their fingers at those they consider irresponsible when they take the banks' bait and learn too well."