…credit-card companies have created a strange business, in which there’s a fine line between good and bad customers. Their best customers aren’t those who dutifully pay off their balance every month; instead, they’re the ones who charge a lot and pay only a little every month, carrying a sizable balance and racking up interest charges and late fees. These are the “revolvers,” and the credit-card business feeds on them. Credit-card companies don’t necessarily want revolvers to pay off their debts; if they did, there’d be no interest or fees to collect. They want their loans to be, in the words of a banking regulator, “a perpetual earning asset.” And they’ve thought a lot about how to keep those interest payments coming. For instance, they used to keep minimum payments relatively high. But, over time, companies started lowering minimum payments, sometimes to just two per cent of the balance. The lower the minimum payment the less people pay off each month and the longer they stay on the hook.
James Suroweicki explains the logic that drives credit card companies to strangle consumers.