If you follow the rules, you win and credit cards lose. But the Fed's new rules would harm responsible consumers.
The beautiful thing about credit cards is how easy they make it for responsible consumers to take unfair advantage of banks and businesses.
Some cards offer low "teaser" interest rates – as low as 0 percent – for balance transfers, purchases, or even cash advances. We take that cheap money, and when we pay off the balance before the promotion period ends, the card companies actually lose money.
We also use credit cards to make shopping more convenient. Just swipe, sign, and go. By paying our bill in full each month, we earn frequent-flyer miles or even cash back without paying the company a cent in interest or fees. There are still more free benefits. If a seller rips us off, the credit-card company will often go to bat for us and get our money back.
Now the Federal Reserve wants to mess all of that up. New regulations the Fed has proposed would reduce or destroy many consumers' ability to take advantage of credit cards and their benefits.
Under the proposed rules, where a consumer takes advantage of a temporary promotional rate, card issuers would have to apply the cardholder's payments to any preexisting higher-rate balance before applying it to the lower-rate balance. (They do the reverse now.) The rules would also prevent banks from increasing the interest rate on an existing balance unless the cardholder makes a payment more than 30 days late (with other limited exceptions).
Those rules may sound beneficial to consumers. During the 90-day public-comment period, which ended last week, the Fed received thousands of letters full of credit-card horror stories, urging them to adopt the changes.
But when well-meaning citizens seek "consumer protection" in this area, they're really asking to shield consumers who don't pay attention to, or follow, the rules. And if they get what they want, that will punish those of us who've handled our cards responsibly, or who want to get a card for the first time.