Andy Kroll

Andy Kroll

Senior Reporter

Andy Kroll is Mother Jones' Dark Money reporter. He is based in the DC bureau. His work has also appeared at the Wall Street Journal, the Detroit News, the Guardian, the American Prospect, and TomDispatch.com, where he's an associate editor. Email him at akroll (at) motherjones (dot) com. He tweets at @AndrewKroll.

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Credit Card Fee Blitz Escalates

| Fri Feb. 19, 2010 8:30 AM EST

On Monday, the second phase of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009—a major overhaul that boosts safeguards against unfair interest-rate hikes, excessive penalties, and other predatory practices—goes into effect, so of course big banks are doing their best to shift the cost of these new changes onto consumers themselves through higher rates and tricky new fees. Among its many provisions, the Credit CARD Act, as it’s called, will require credit card issuers to offer fair notice of changes in interest rates, ban universal default practices, and let consumers opt in to overdraft protection. The first phase of the CARD Act went into effect last fall; the third and final phase is slated for late August. Not to be outdone, though, banks are ensuring the burden of these new regulations don't fall on them.

Citigroup, for instance, recently sent letters to many of its Citi Card customers informing them of a new annual fee of $60. The only way to avoid that fee, the letter says, is to either spend more than $2,400 each year, after which the fee would be credited back to cardholders, or to pay off your debts and close the account. A Citigroup spokesman said the fee was "necessary given the increasing costs of doing business." The message, of course, is simple: Spend more money through the bank, which in turn increases the likelihood Citigroup will collect late fees and other charges, or take your business elsewhere. As one Citi Card holder told Mother Jones, "What they're doing is getting rid of prudent customers."

And that's just one example of what banks and credit card companies are up to in reaction to legislation like the Credit CARD Act. According to IndexCreditCards.com, a comprehensive site with data on credit card offerings, interest rates for consumers jumped by 0.42 percentage points in the past month, and the average rate offered to new customers, 16.7 percent, is the highest since 2005, with rates for both reward and non-reward cards continuing to climb. "We're clearly seeing one of the unintended consequences of the new law," IndexCreditCards.com founder Adam Jusko said in a statement. "We seem to be going from a marketplace in which a relatively few cardholders got into deep trouble to one in which the misery is more evenly spread."

What consumer advocates hope, however, is that the savings from the CARD Act will outweigh the banking industry’s efforts to pass costs along to consumers. By cutting retroactive rate increases and “hair-trigger” penalty interest rates, the CARD Act could save consumers more than $10 billion a year, according to the Pew Charitable Trust’s Safe Credit Cards Project. Pew also is pushing for an overhaul of late fees charged to cardholders, which the organization says are far too excessive right now. “We are seeing instances where Americans are being charged excessive penalties for exceeding their credit limits by even one dollar," Nick Bourke, the head of the Safe Credit Cards Project, said recently. "A $39 fee for exceeding a credit limit by just a few dollars, or for missing a $70 minimum payment deadline by a few hours, is difficult to justify as 'reasonable' or 'proportional' under the factors identified in the new law."

In late August, the Federal Reserve will issue a definition of what "reasonable and proportional" penalties for credit cards should be, which will be the third and final phase of the CARD Act. "We encourage regulators to implement strong rules that directly address disproportionate penalties," says Pew's Bourke.

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GOP Goes Solo on Financial Reform

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 11:04 AM EST

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), whose financial-reform negotiations with Senate banking committee chair Chris Dodd (D-CT) broke down recently, is crafting a Republican version of financial reform with other GOP senators on the banking committee, Bloomberg reported today. The ranking member on the banking committee, Shelby had previously led financial-reform talks with Dodd, but those talks ended with an "impasse" between the two lawmakers. (Dodd has proceded with the talks with Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) since the schism.) Some attributed the breakdown to Shelby's opposition to a standalone Consumer Financial Protection Agency that would oversee financial products, like subprime mortgages, and would consolidate consumer protection in a single independent agency.

Shelby's new, GOP-only reform efforts, Bloomberg reported, would create a consumer protection division within an existing bank regulator, not a standalone agency. Shelby aides also told Bloomberg that the senator's version of financial reform would protect taxpayers from the cost of unwinding too-big-to-fail financial institutions. Also getting a look in Shelby's financial reform would be a consolidated bank regulator, an idea that's gaining steam in Dodd's financial-reform plans as well. Aides to Shelby said a lot of the details have yet to be ironed out, but that talks had been ongoing for a couple of months now.

Senate Bank "Super Regulator" Gains Steam

| Thu Feb. 18, 2010 8:45 AM EST

The Senate's plan to create a "super regulator" through its financial reform package appears to be gaining momentum in Congress and the White House. The new watchdog, which would actually be a council of regulators, would be led by the Treasury Secretary and would assume responsibility for monitoring systemic risk in the financial markets, i.e., when a particular bank or several them become so interconnected and powerful that failure would pose a threat to the entire economy. The super-regulator plan, the New York Times reports, has a fair amount of support on both sides of the aisle in the Senate, including backing from Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT), Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), and Sen. David Vitter (R-LA). The details on the council are still fuzzy at this point as to who'd be on the council, but hopefully there will be updates on that soon.

A main point of contention with the super-regulator plan is that it would strip the Federal Reserve of much of its regulatory and systemic-risk powers, a move that's not surprisingly drawn the ire of the Fed's leaders and allies. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH) disagreed with giving away the Fed's bank oversight powers—which, as it's been widely reported, the Fed made scant use of—saying the Fed deserves to keep its bank-regulating role. Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said in October, however, that he supported a Treasury-led regulatory council, stressing the importance of moving "from an institution-by-institution supervisory approach to one that is attentive to the stability of the financial system as a whole," despite the consequences it would have on the Fed's role in watching over banks' products and practices.

The council of regulators proposal first surfaced in negotiations last summer, when the idea was first floated by the White House and the Treasury. That proposal, however, reserved far less power for the council—"You don't convene a committee to put out a fire," Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner said in June—but later conceded that some kind of council could advise the Fed and have a more complimentary role in bank oversight. Those previous talks—like so many other subjects—fell by the wayside as health-care reform took over the Senate's deliberations, but bits and pieces of those earlier negotiations are now resurfacing.

Still, as was the case in last summer's debate, the fine print with these new super-regulator talks needs to be ironed out, like whether the council would report to Congress and issue reports and whether it would draw on other agencies like the SEC. And speaking of the SEC, the new council is likely to have the backing of people like SEC chair Mary Schapiro and FDIC chair Sheila Bair, who backed the earlier proposal in July of last year. Perhaps they see this council as a chance for them to extend their jurisdiction and clout—so of course they're going to support it. Which raises the question: If what lawmakers fear is the fragmented, do-nothing approach to financial regulation, will creating a glorified committee made of a bunch of different regulators really make much of a difference?

Obama's HAMP Misery Continues

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 4:51 PM EST

The Treasury Department released the latest figures today for its $75 billion flagship homeowner relief program, and the figures are—you guessed it—still abysmal. Through January the Home Affordable Modification Program has resulted in around 116,000 permanent modifications, 76,000 offers of permanent modifications, and more than 1 million homeowners beginning trial modifications.

Now, an interpretation. First off, the statistic that really matters here is that first number—116,000—the number of permanent mods. It's not much at all. By comparison, 2.8 million households got foreclosure notices in 2009, shattering the previous record and foretelling more pain in the housing sector in 2010. Now while HAMP wasn't created to address all kinds of foreclosures (which is arguably one of its flaws), a program with $75 billion in taxpayer funds behind it should do far more than help a meager 116,000 homeowners almost a year later.

Then there's that "trial modifications" figure. Trial modifications are only a few months in duration, are hardly a guarantee for a permanent modification, and do very little, if anything at all, to lessen the burden on beleagured homeowners. One homeowner, for instance, told me that after wrangling with her servicer, Saxon Mortgage Services, for months to get into HAMP, she finally got a modification; to her dismay, though, her new payments were a measly $40 less than her original, unaffordable mortgage. The reason why? Saxon claimed this homeowner had a sister who was giving her more than $1,000 a month and that skewed her income calculations. The rub: This homeowner was an only child.

It's these kinds of errors and general confusion that continue to plague HAMP, as these latest numbers show. As for the Treasury's take on HAMP's progress—"With nearly one million homeowners paying less each month and the number of permanent modifications steadily rising, HAMP is doing the job it was designed to do," says Phyllis Caldwell, head of the Treasury's Homeownership Preservation Office—that's just complete and utter spin. One million homeowners are not paying less each month—maybe for a short period, but even that's questionable—and HAMP is not doing its job by any stretch of the imagination. Far from it.

Life in Mortgageland Gets Bleaker

| Wed Feb. 17, 2010 11:47 AM EST

Despite yet more indications the economy is turning up—a slight drop in unemployment, increases in housing starts and manufacturing productivity—the view from Mortgageland remains bleak as ever. The percentage of mortgage delinquencies, or people 60 days or more late on their payments, increased in the 2009 fourth quarter for the 12th straight quarter. In 4Q 2009, almost 7 percent of borrowers were delinquent on their mortgages, an all-time national record. This delinquency statistic, seen as a precursor to foreclosure, was up from 6.25 percent the previous quarter and, more troublingly, up from 4.6 percent a year ago—a 50 percent jump from last year to now.

A few more interesting statistics from TransUnion, who released the data. The average national mortgage debt continued to increase, now at $193,690 up a hair from $193,121 in 3Q 2009 and from a year before $192,789. The place with the highest average mortgage debt: My very own District of Columbia, at a whopping $372,869 per person. This data, especially the ever-rising delinquency totals, further confirm (as if you needed more confirmation) that efforts at recovery in the housing industry—say, the Obama administration's $75 billion bust, the Home Affordable Modification Program—just aren't doing the job, as millions of people across the country are without jobs and stuck with homes for which they owe far more than their house is worth. The foreclosure crisis is an intractable problem, an ongoing headache, and right now there's little light at the end of the tunnel.

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