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Credit card cornucopia ending in US

* A Washington woman with several young children has just had her major credit card taken away. The reason? Her credit line is $300 or less, and the card firm is slashing away "low credit" customers.

* A secretary in Boston has cut back her credit cards from 12 to 8. But she still owes more than $2,000 on seven of those cards, and worries that her minimum monthly payments will soon rise sharply. Not long ago she charged a three- month security deposit for her apartment on one card.

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* A custodian in New England recently used credit cards to buy diapers and other baby products because he and his wife didn't have the cash. They owe $200 on cards from two retailers -- Sears and Jordan Marsh -- and admit they would have trouble paying back that debt if minimum payments were raised.

* At the imposing Sears Tower, in downtown Chicago, meanwhile, company executives have a worry of their own. Last year, a whopping 57 percent of all sales for the giant firm -- the nation's largest retailer -- were by credit. Will credit restrictions called for by President Carter last week drastically rip into sales for Sears and, hence, company profits and expansion plans?

Newly imposed credit curbs, announced by the administration as one way of checking inflation, now reaching close to 20 percent annually, are already leading to a significant reshuffling of the way credit is used -- and financed -- in the United States:

* Minimum monthly payments are expected to jump for millions of cardholders. At the same time, credit ceilings will be lowered.

* Interest, in many cases, will be posted from the date an item is purchased rather than at the end of a "grace period" of 30 days or longer.

* Lenders will stop promoting easy credit. There will be tougher limits for applicants. Lower-income families will be frozen out of credit.

* The Federal Reserve Board may shortly call for elimination or suspension of key elements of truth-in-lending legislation designed to protect consumers against credit fraud. The reason? To make buying on credit less attractive and thus make reduction of credit availability more palatable.

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For many economists, meanwhile, there is a deeper and more nagging concern arising out of the new credit curbs: To what extent will reductions in credit -- and credit card usage -- endanger the financial position of the hundreds of thousands of retailers and service firms that do as much as one-half of their business on a credit basis?

Testifing before a US Senate committee March 18, Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker conceded that the imposition of credit controls was President Carter's idea rather than his own. In the past Mr. Volcker has repeatedly opposed credit curbs.

Under the new restrictions announced by the Fed at the request of Mr. Carter, lenders -- including gasoline retailers, credit card firms, department stores, and banks -- must post 15 percent of all new credit in noninterest-bearing accounts with the Fed. The immediate effect: Lenders will cut back credit availability.

For retailers and credit card firms, the restrictions are at best a mixed blessing -- and there is a real problem involved.

On one hand, many lenders, faced with rising interest costs for the money they must borrow to finance credit for consumers, plus state usury ceilings restricting what they can charge, were voluntarily cutting back credit even before the President's decision.

In early March, for example, the NAC credit card -- a Baltimore-Washington area card issued by a subsidiary of Citibank -- took away the cards of all customers (14,000) with credit lines of $300 or less.

Many banks and other credit card issuers will clearly benefit from the restrictions by being able to require larger monthly payments and raising, where permitted, interest charges.

But for national retailers like Sears, JC Penney, and Montgomery Ward, as well as local department stores, the curbs could pose genuine problems.

Sears has 26 million credit accounts, most of them by way of charge cards. The outstanding balance of credit owed Sears at the beginning of February 1980 was $7.1 billion. That was up $500,000 from a balance of $6.6 billion at the beginning of February 1979.

But that $500,000 meant additional sales for the huge retailer -- sales based on credit.

For 1979 as a whole, Sears sales were off by 2 percent; earnings were down 12 percent.

For JC Penney, while sales rose modestly, earnings were off for the year -- also down some 12 percent.

Major discount stores like K Mart Corporation, the nation's second-largest retailer, are not expected to be much affected by the curbs.

Ironically, the use of consumer credit -- which shot up at a 15 percent rate last year -- already had dropped sharply during the first two months of this year, to an increase of about 5 percent.


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