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Credit Dries Up, Banks Clamp Down


Lenders tighten standards; consumers feel the pinch.


The American consumer desperately needs another lender of last resort.

It took the worst housing slump in decades, a global financial crisis and the collapse of some of the biggest financial institutions in the country, but banks finally seem to be getting the picture. Maybe less credit, not more, is what we need.

Yesterday, the Federal Reserve released its quarterly survey of lending standards. Unsurprisingly, banks are getting stingier with their money. According to the New York Times:

  • 85% of domestic banks reported tightening commercial and industrial loans

  • 60% are tightening standards on credit card loans

  • 65% are clamping down on all types of consumer debt

  • 20% are cutting limits for existing, prime credit card holders

The overarching theme was consistent: Banks "continued to tighten their lending standards and terms on all major loan categories over the previous 3 months."

Big card-issuers American Express (AXP) and Capital One (COF) confirmed this trend last week, announcing they're clamping down on existing customers and giving new prospects the full probe prior to issuing cards.

Furthermore, banks are raising interest rates to compensate for the additional risk they now face as consumers grapple with a slowing economy, job losses and tumbling home prices. Likewise, mortgage rates remain stubbornly elevated, evidence of concern about ongoing mortgage risk.

Debt-laden consumers are quickly running out of options. The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that utility companies, like Pennsylvania's PPL (PPL), are seeing surging delinquencies. PPL said shutoffs increased 78% in the first 3 quarters of the year. The company is also more aggressively cutting consumers off, a policy it says will "prevent people from getting further into debt."

As the Treasury department doles out its $700 billion in bailout money, consumers and investors alike should watch closely to see just how much of it is funneled into new lending.

Meanwhile, belts will continue to tighten around the country as Americans explore the long-forgotten concept that less may actually be more.

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