If you pay your credit-card bills in full each month, you probably didn’t take much notice when President Barack Obama signed legislation in late May aimed at keeping banks from doing such things as hiking interest rates with little or no notice and engaging in other consumer-unfriendly practices. But don’t assume that just because you rarely carry a balance, you are immune from poor treatment at the hands of credit-card issuers.
Banks have cut off or pared back an estimated $1 trillion in credit lines since the peak of the credit boom, according to the now famously bearish analyst Meredith Whitney . Moreover, according to a study from the maker of the all-important FICO credit score, recent cutbacks have hit twice as many of the most financially responsible consumers–those with a median credit score of 770–as those with crummy credit. “These people have done everything right,” says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst with Bankrate.com “and now some arbitrary decision could torpedo their credit score.” Why Because the formula for determining credit scores, which banks use to decide whether to give you a mortgage or any other loan, looks at something called your “utilization ratio,” the total amount of credit you use vs. the amount you have available. If you have $25,000 worth of available credit and you put $5,000 on your cards every month, your utilization ratio is a healthy, hey-I’m-living-within-my-means 20%. But cut down that credit line to $10,000 and suddenly your ratio jumps to 50%, making you look pretty overextended. So why would lenders target the good customers Mainly because banks can’t afford to take a lot of risk anymore. If you have, say, $30,000 in unused credit sitting around, there’s always the chance you’ll start tapping into it in the event of a job loss or other financial crisis. Adam Levin, co-founder of consumer-information website Credit.com predicts credit-line cutbacks will accelerate as card companies try to shore up their finances before the new regulations take effect early next year. “Credit-card companies are on a reign of terror,” he says. “The new rules aren’t going to change that anytime soon.” Adds McBride: “Consumers will have to brace themselves for higher fees, higher rates and lower lines going forward.” And that applies to those with good credit scores as well as bad.