WASHINGTON - Smart shopping, not government regulation, is consumers' best protection against mounting credit card debt, Federal Reserve Governor Lawrence B. Lindsey said Thursday.
"Each household best knows its financial circumstance and how much debt it can afford," Mr. Lindsey said.
He made his comments at a consumer credit forum held by Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy 2d, D-Mass. Rep. Kennedy said aggressive credit card marketing is luring Americans into debt.
Credit card marketing is "out of control," he said. "I feel this is an issue the Fed has to weigh in on."
Rep. Kennedy blasted credit card marketers for such selling tactics as low introductory "teaser rates," small minimum payments that allow debt to accumulate, and credit limit increases that let debtors dig themselves deeper in debt.
Total consumer debt now stands at 82% of personal income, according to Federal Reserve statistics. That's up from less than 70% in 1987. Those numbers are troubling, Mr. Lindsey said, because an economic slump would cause a sharp rise in delinquencies.
But Mr. Lindsey defended aggressive credit card marketing, because it keeps rates and fees down and ensures that credit is widely available.
"Most of us are better off because of aggressive marketing. We have more choices," he said.
Still, Mr. Lindsey conceded that credit problems are at disturbingly high levels. Credit card delinquencies today are at the same level as during the worst of the 1991 recession, he said.
Mr. Lindsey is no stranger to the effect of nonstop credit card marketing. He was recently denied a Toys 'R' Us card because so many credit card companies had probed his credit record for marketing data that the store decided he was a bad credit risk.
He said consumers can best avoid debt troubles by being responsible and reading credit card offers carefully.
Also at the forum, consumer advocate Ralph Nader criticized recent credit card techniques such as rebates and home equity credit cards.
"Rebates earned rarely make up for the cards' high interest rates," he said.
Mr. Nader encouraged the establishment of financial consumers' associations - state-chartered, nonprofit organizations that would press for consumer protection laws in state legislatures and Congress and would represent consumers in court.