Even though the vast majority of credit unions never abused credit card holders the way many big bank issuers did, credit union card programs were nonetheless significantly changed by the 2009 legislation meant to correct those abuses.
President Obama signed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility, and Disclosure Act in May of 2009, but most of the law's mandated changes didn't go into effect until 2010. Ironically, by curbing the big card issuer practices most decried by consumer advocates, Congress effectively transformed their card programs into ones that looked a lot closer to CU card programs. The new law banned such practices as double-cycle billing, most teaser or promotional annual percentage rates and mandated changes to the information card issuers provided cardholders.
Most credit union card issuers had no trouble with most of the law-they had never done any of those things. But other of the law's requirements changed how CUs handled their card programs as well.
One of the biggest changes moved many credit union card programs away from fixed interest rates, which some had for many years and which were very popular with members, to cards with a variable rate pegged to an external interest index like the prime rate or Libor.
The law helped bring about this change by making it more difficult for card issuers to change interest rates on fixed-rate cards in general and prohibiting raising interest rates on existing balances-unless the card has a variable rate pegged to an external index. Many credit unions concluded that this left their fixed-rate card programs with too much interest rate risk and moved their programs to the variable rate. But it was by no means universal, as some CUs kept their fixed rate cards.
The law also made sure that the small numbers of CUs that offered cards to students, usually when a university was part of their field of membership, got smaller. Under the new law, a card issuer cannot issue a card to a person under 21 years of age unless that student has a parent co-signer or can prove he or she can pay for the card.
Some CU card consultants applauded the move, but some credit unions defended the practice.
CUs and their card processors also had to deal with other law changes, such as disclosure regulations along with changes to the information contained in cardholder statements. And many CUs also chose to discontinue allowing their members to go over their credit limits on their cards and then charging them for having done so, though few credit unions found that fee generated significant income.z"We did have to spend a little time thinking about how to change the disclosures, but we have some pretty smart people, and they were able to figure it out" recounted Kevin Moyle, spokesman and assistant vice president for the $712 million University and State Employees Credit Union, San Diego.
Moyle said the credit union completely revamped its credit card statement, both to reflect the CARD ACT requirements and to make them even clearer for the members and to highlight the card's benefits to consumers. Among those benefits, Moyle reported, was a decision to keep the card's portfolio at a fixed rate after an introductory lower rate on new cards. Moyle said the feedback from consumers and members reflected a strong preference for fixed-rate cards.
But if the CARD Act narrowed some of the biggest differences between bank and credit union cards, the public battle over passing the law and the resulting publicity that credit union cards received helped bring them large amounts of new business.
In the wake of the CARD Act, nationally known consumer advocates like Suzy Orman and Arianna Huffington, publisher of the Huffington Post, began to openly tout credit union card programs and credit unions generally. They made the sorts of arguments for credit union cards that credit unions had known for years.