Lenders that have been withholding some of their customer data from credit bureaus are facing the prospect of retaliation from the bureaus and intervention by banking regulators.
Two of the big three credit information companies, Equifax Inc. and Trans Union Corp., are putting policies into effect over the next two days to curtail what they view as a detriment to thorough loan evaluations by its customers. In some cases, they will not sell screened lists of potential customers to lenders that do not supply their own customer data.
The other major credit bureau, Experian Inc., is expected to follow suit eventually.
In Washington, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has been most vocal in seeking to ban information withholding, and a broad regulatory move, including guidance from the multi-agency Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council, will likely take shape early in the new year.
The practice of not contributing to the major credit-reporting data bases began several years ago in the subprime market to prevent competing lenders from poaching profitable customers. It spread this year to the point where companies controlling more than 50% of the credit market stopped reporting customers' credit limits and peak-balance data.
The regulators would come down strongly in favor of complete data reporting, while the bureaus would employ carrot-and-stick enforcement.
"When somebody extends credit to a customer, it's important to have a complete financial picture," said David Gibbons, deputy comptroller of the currency for credit risk. He described the lack of it as "a safety-and-soundness implication."
Trans Union, of Chicago, is aiming its full-reporting policy at subprime lenders, mainly in the home, auto, and credit card areas.
These lenders "should not have access to account data if they are not reporting their own data," said Bill Rodgers, executive vice president of Trans Union. "It's a fairness issue."
At least for now, Trans Union is not applying the policy to mainstream credit card issuers because they are reporting other data such as payment histories, payment amounts, and delinquencies, among other things. But Mr. Rodgers said Trans Union will review its policy on credit card lenders.
Atlanta-based Equifax, in a letter to customers Tuesday, said that if credit card issuers do not supply peak-balance or credit-limit information, then they will not receive such data on prescreen lists from Equifax.
Trans Union's decision "was painful financially," Mr. Rodgers said. Trans Union has severed ties with certain lenders that have not taken steps toward full credit reporting, he said.
"We took a hit here," Mr. Rodgers said, "but I'm hoping we will be rewarded for it."
The issue is sensitive for the bureaus precisely because they are pitted against their biggest customers.
The Equifax letter, signed by Paul J. Springman, senior vice president of sales, said the company values its customers and aims to provide innovative, high-quality services. But it added, "We also have a responsibility in fulfilling the interests of the nation's consumers to maintain and report full, complete, and accurate information."
In October the credit bureaus and card lenders agreed to meet and work toward resolving the situation, but a senior credit bureau executive, who did not want to be identified, said the bureaus backed out of the meeting because of antitrust concerns.
The lack of progress toward a self-regulatory solution led the regulators to step up their involvement, Mr. Gibbons said.
"For whatever reason, those [private-sector] efforts have slowed significantly in the last month," he said. He would not elaborate.
Among the credit card issuers not reporting credit-limit data are Citigroup, which is the largest card marketer, and Discover Financial Services Inc., a unit of Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co.
Mr. Gibbons said many of the top card companies are not reporting this information.
Credit-limit information is valuable, Mr. Rodgers said, because "it represents the bank's evaluation of the consumer, what the consumer is worth to the bank, and what risk the bank is willing to take with the consumer." In theory, a competitor could use this knowledge to lure a consumer away with a higher credit limit.
A further concern, according to research conducted by Trans Union, is that consumers may appear to be more creditworthy than they actually are. By contrast, an Experian study done this year found that 35% of consumers receive lower credit scores than they deserve.
Other card issuers are not reporting the highest balances that consumers have had with them, a piece of information that might indicate a person's potential profitability.
A recent mail solicitation from Providian Financial Corp. appears to have fanned lenders' insecurity about their vulnerability to poaching. Providian, the sixth-largest bank card issuer, sent out a balance-transfer offer that lists - based on credit bureau information - the targeted prospect's existing credit card providers, with estimated balances.
"The question is, How long is it before the benefits of the voluntary credit-reporting system become eliminated?" Mr. Gibbons said. "There is no question in my mind that [nonreporting] will go further if it is not slowed down now."
The OCC is also concerned that less-creditworthy consumers in the subprime market are not getting the credit they deserve for making timely payments. "When that record is not reported, the consumer may not get the best deal" when applying for another loan, Mr. Gibbons said.
"The best thing that could happen is for the industry to work it out for themselves," he said. "This thing is still in play."