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R.I.P. Free Credit

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Credit-card companies to do away with no-fee plastic

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Remember the good old days? Back when you and the credit crunch were young, and only those "subprime" people over on the other side of town -- you know, the ones living wildly beyond their means, dependent on credit for the very necessities of life -- had to deal with the harsh reality of life without free and easy credit?

Those happier times are long since passed, as the malaise continues to seep its way up the economic spectrum. Now, even the most creditworthy consumers who haven't missed a payment in years are seeing credit lines cut, interest rates raised and finding it increasingly difficult to get a mortgage. They'd better get used to it - the free lunch is over.

Up in Washington, where economic rationale and populist rhetoric seem to be more mutually exclusive than ever these days, the Senate is voting on a widely debated new set of rules for the credit card industry.

According to the New York Times, although the legislation doesn't cap the rates companies like Capital One (COF) and American Express (AXP) can charge their customers, they'll be forced to up rates more slowly -- and with more disclosure -- meanwhile making it tougher to impose late fees on borrowers that can't keep up. This will reduce lenders' earning power, not to mention their inclination to give out credit lines to questionable borrowers.

While risky borrowers will bear the brunt of late fees, over-limit charges and slashed credit lines, the well-to-do are in for the biggest shock. Banks are considering curtailing or doing away entirely with rewards programs, grace periods before interest charges kick in and accounts without annual fees. Gone are the days when paying your bills on time was a path to free credit.

The country's biggest banks, JPMorgan (JPM), Bank of America (BAC) and Citigroup (C) have already told Congress the new rules will force them to limit credit availability and increase fees. While this may bode well for profit margins in the near term, not so for the broader economy.

In light of the financial implosion wrought by too much debt supported by not enough real income, it's hard to argue credit card companies shouldn't be a bit less free-wheeling when handing out plastic. But analysts are quick to point out that paring down consumer credit will have a dastardly effect on our consumption-based economy.

For a country whose economy is two-thirds consumer spending, and whose consumer is (still) addicted to credit, the new legislation is like pumping the economy full of Xanex - everything will just slow down.

And while in the long run, less dependence on cheap and easy credit will help prevent the sorts of credit crisis like the one we're experiencing right now, we'll likely look back with 20/20 hindsight and say this legislation went too far, constricted credit too much. This is a shame, since before Congress even cooked up the idea of the new rules, the natural deleveraging cycle was already restricting credit on its own.

Debt isn't in and of itself, bad. As Minyanville's Kevin Depew wrote today, "real lending and economic activity will only improve when real savers see real value at the right level of risk. That will only occur in the short-run with vastly lower prices, or in the long run with stagnant prices and the benefit of time." Indeed.

Credit allows a transfer of risk from those who want to take it, but can't, to those who can take it, but need to be appropriately compensated for putting their cash on the line. This can foster healthy economic growth - when used properly.

That day will come again, but that day isn't today.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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