Five years after the enactment of major reforms to the U.S. credit-card market, industry opposition has quietly faded into acceptance. Bankers certainly aren't celebrating the 2009 legislation, but they're not condemning it, either.

The law, widely known as the CARD Act, curtailed a number of practices that lawmakers deemed unfair to consumers: retroactive interest rate hikes on existing card debt, large fees for late payments, shortened billing cycles that made it harder for consumers to pay their bills on time and others.

Back in early 2009, banking groups fought to stave off legislation. But this week, on the fifth anniversary of President Obama's signature on the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act, industry representatives are taking a more nuanced position.

"There were huge benefits to consumers, and we don't want to lose sight of those," says Nessa Feddis, senior vice president at the American Bankers Association. "But there were tradeoffs. There were significant tradeoffs."

When pressed on whether the law's overall impact has been positive or negative, she was non-committal. "I guess it depends on where you sit," Feddis said.

Consumers who always make on-time payments, but don't pay off their entire balance each month, are probably paying more as a result of the law, Feddis says. Certain other customers, such as those who sometimes pay late, may be saving money.

Dave Pommerohn, senior counsel and assistant vice president at the Consumer Bankers Association, makes a similar argument.

Clearer disclosures by card issuers have likely led some consumers to pay down their debt more quickly, he says. But he also maintains that there's less credit available to consumers than there would be absent the law, and interest rates on credit cards are higher.

"When you look at the effect of the CARD Act, you kind of have to look at the balancing effect of it," he says.

The mixed-bag view that banking groups express today reflects a pragmatic approach to a law that's clearly here to stay. It also reflects the fact that the credit card industry has adapted and remained profitable.

It's proven difficult to measure the CARD Act's impact on the cost and availability of credit — in large part because lots of other big changes happened in the credit-card marketplace around the same time the law passed in 2009.

Many consumers, amid economic fears on a scale that few Americans had previously experienced, were looking to reduce their debt loads. Meanwhile, card issuers wanted to reduce their risk exposure. And indeed, since 2009, the volume of revolving consumer credit outstanding has fallen from $916 billion to around $855 billion, according to  Federal Reserve Board data.

But it's hard to untangle the law's impact from that of the macroeconomic forces.

report last October by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which considered more than 85% of credit card industry balances, found that the total cost of credit declined by 1.94 percentage points between the fourth quarter of 2008 and the fourth quarter of 2012. The report also found that beginning in early 2009, interest rates on credit card accounts rose, while back-end fees either decreased or were eliminated.

While banking groups argue that the law's impact has been mixed, consumer groups that championed the legislation are  taking a victory lap this week.

"The fact is, credit card costs are now more uniform and less opaque," says Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "Because the card you sign up for is the card you get. It's not changed by unfair back-end practices."

"The credit card marketplace has not collapsed into an abyss. It's still very robust," he adds.

An important factor in getting the 2009 legislation passed, according to former Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C., was the fact that some of card industry's practices were hurting mainstream consumers who were trying to pay their bills on time.

For example, some card issuers were shrinking the window of time between when consumers received their bills and when payments were due; the CARD Act stated that payments had to be due on the same date each month, and consumers generally couldn't be charged a late fee unless they had at least 21 days to pay.

"The end of 2008, beginning of 2009, there was polling that showed that 80% of Americans strongly favored regulation of credit card practices," recalls Miller, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Credit card reform was so popular with the American public in early 2009 that the incoming Obama administration asked Democrats in Congress to hold off on passing legislation until it appeared to bear the White House's fingerprints, Miller recalls.

Miller explained the Obama administration's thinking at that time this way: "We can get in front of the parade and look like we're leading it."

Among the major laws enacted during the Obama Administration, the CARD Act is one of very few that garnered strong bipartisan support in Congress. The initial House version  passed by a 357 to 70 margin. In the Senate  the vote was 90 to 5.

The law was soon overshadowed by the more wide-ranging, more partisan Dodd-Frank Act. But supporters of the credit card law don't want it to be forgotten, in large part because many of its provisions rest on the idea that clear disclosure is not always enough to protect consumers adequately.

"Disclosure doesn't help, doesn't help enough," Mierzwinski says. "The CARD Act banned unfair practices. That's a big distinction."

 

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