deadbeats who default. Otherwise, how could banks continue to promote card use intensely and profitably? But now Warren Heller, director of research for Veribanc, a bank credit monitoring company based in Wakefield, Mass., has done the math. If the costs of nonpayment were eliminated, Veribanc's September newsletter states, interest rates to cardholders could be reduced by 5.5 percentage points without any loss to the issuers. This should perk up the ears of alert marketers at large banks and small. The bank that maintains the highest standards and passes on the savings to its cardholders could offer a service now missing in this world of almost-indistinguishable plastics. Despite the promotions, large type, and hype, can we really decide that one credit card is better than another? Gold, platinum, so what? When you look at the features each offers-not including the $300-a-year American Express platinum card-most are pretty much the same. If you want a card without an annual fee, you get no airline miles. If you want miles, you pay a fee. (Isn't it noteworthy that we decide which card we will use not by the name or reputation of the bank but by which airline we like to ride?) And even the Amex platinum card is not a breakthrough for most of us. Its main feature is that if you pay for full-fare business class or first class on several international airlines, you get a companion ticket free. This, then, helps only those who travel abroad a lot, can afford these full fare rates, and in most cases have their companies' pay the full fare so they can legitimately take along a companion for free. But what would happen if a bank or group of banks offered a card with the strictest standards on payment, an announced policy of playing hardball with any delinquents, and a rate that was truly 5% or so below the average and stayed that way? Would it prove to be a profit center for the issuing banks? Many would say no. First, the cost of collection would be tremendous if every delinquency led to a bank reaction. Second, people with normally solid credit who delayed paying once or twice because of bad luck would end up disliking the bank for its stern policy and would probably switch banks. Then there is the issue of whether people really care how much they pay in interest on their credit cards, as long as the monthly payments are not too onerous. Many people feel that when interest rates rise, you don't pay more, you just pay longer. Still, it is worth a try. An awful lot of people who don't want to pay for the deadbeats would switch to your card. Look at the auto insurance industry. Some firms take bad risks and charge enough to make it worthwhile. Others have far lower rates-but one accident or speeding ticket and watch how unfriendly they can become, up to the point of not renewing the policy. Of course there are those who pay balances in full in 25 days and never incur an interest payment. That is why some banks are starting to charge a special fee to those who always pay on time. And just as banks offer preferred rates, they can raise rates of those who do not have a perfect credit ratings, just as they make subprime mortgage loans but offset the risk with higher fees and charges. As Veribanc warns, banking is extremely vulnerable to an economic downturn, and that vulnerability increases as credit card usage rises. Credit card debt is now reported at $459 billion. But unused credit lines reach almost $2 trillion! Remembering that loans through credit cards are initiated by the borrower rather than the bank, this means a lot of cardholders can run into credit trouble in a very short time. Those who do should have to pay.

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