MADISON, Wis. -- The Filene Research Institute has released a research paper on member card behavior that suggests credit unions get involved with members stressed about their debt earlier rather than later.
Authored by Filene CEO Mark Meyer, the research brief cited previously published research indicating that credit card debit could become as big a problem as mortgage debt.
"Could credit cards cause a financial disaster similar to the subprime mortgage crisis?" Meyer asked. "Some analysts believe it could easily happen given consumers' ever-increasing reliance on credit cards, current credit card debt levels, increasing defaults and the fact that investors hold billions of dollars in securitized debt backed by credit card receivables."
Meyer cited analysis showing that consumers are using credit cards to replace the role that home equity lines of credit--now dried up--used to play and that, overall, the credit crunch could end up damaging credit unions as members struggle to keep current with their overall debt loads.
In response, Meyer urged CUs to continue to offer members credit but carefully and proactively.
"Help your members avoid pushing the panic button," Meyer wrote. "Target members [those with annual household incomes of less than $60,000, aged 35--44, and women] with information and offers of assistance in dealing with unexpected credit card term and condition changes. Educate members about predatory credit card terms and conditions and the potential adverse impact. Offer credit (as appropriate) to those who have been turned down elsewhere."
Meyer also cited research from Ohio State University's Consumer Finance Monthly, which indicated that not all consumers or credit union members experience debt-related stress the same way. The survey found that middle-aged consumers and women experience more debt related stress.
"Respondents who are widowed or have never been married generally report higher levels of debt-related stress than do those who are married or divorced," the report said.
"In particular, people who have never been married are more likely than their counterparts to worry frequently and be highly stressed about total debt, to anticipate significant debt-related problems in the future, and to be highly concerned about their ability to pay off their debt."
On the other hand, those who are widowed or divorced are more likely to indicate that debt has caused very or extremely serious problems for their families. Perhaps widowers are struggling to pay off their spouse's medical expenses, Meyer hypothesized. Debt could also be a factor in the decision to divorce, he added.
Meyer recommended credit unions continue to market their own cards to their members as consumer-friendly alternatives to many of the cards offered by larger issuers.
He urged credit unions to promote their more consumer-friendly credit card terms and conditions and help members learn to select credit cards with the most favorable features.
Where they can, he also suggested CUs allow their members to transfer card credit card debt from other cards to credit union credit cards or debt consolidation loans and assist members with closing higher-cost accounts at other financial institutions.
Finally, Meyer urged credit unions to see the opportunity in the current situation presented by banks that are tightening access to credit. "Cross sell your credit card and other products/services to members who are frustrated and fed up with their banks," Meyer urged.