Credit Makes the World Go 'Round

Includes: AXP, COF, MA, V
by: Tim Iacono

Attitudes regarding credit and debt are changing in very material ways around the world. Much of the West seems to have had enough of the stuff while it appears emerging economies are just getting started.

Rapidly expanding credit and debt are wonderful things at first. People spending money they don't have on things they don't need is a great way to boost economic growth and that has been a big part of the American economic success story over the last twenty years.

Some have argued (well, actually, just me so far) that the real Reagan Revolution was the expansion of credit and debt at all levels - government, corporate, and consumer - during an era of falling interest rates.

Most have no real appreciation for how much attitudes toward credit and debt have changed in the U.S. over the years, but we all should have known it wouldn't last forever.

Tom Petruno of the Los Angeles Times asks if we are about to become a frugal nation.

But there is a school of thought out there that says many people have been permanently changed by the economic blows the nation has suffered over the last year -- the unprecedented quadruple whammy of the dive in home prices, tumbling stock values, soaring energy and food prices, and the credit crunch.

We've all been warned for years to spend less and save more. Maybe we're taking that to heart now.

That's the view of David Rosenberg, a veteran economist at Merrill Lynch & Co. in New York. He has a dour outlook for U.S. economic growth in large part because he thinks Americans have gotten religion about their personal finances.

For many consumers, Rosenberg says, "frugality is now replacing frivolity."

With only a few exceptions, "frugality" has never been a word that aptly describes the American consumer, but, that may be changing. Not by choice, however.

Around the globe it's a different story. In other parts of the word, people have been frugal for the last twenty years and, in many cases, for the last twenty centuries.

South Korea had a credit card scare a few years back and seems to have learned a thing or two. And what might happen when hundreds of millions of Chinese are issued their first plastic, deciding to spend their initial credit line of $1,000 or more in return for a string of never-ending, but puny monthly payments?

What happens when that process is repeated billions of times?

Long-established cultural norms have a way of falling quickly to the wayside when getting something for almost nothing is the alternative. Such is the case in Turkey today as Mark Landler of the New York Times explains how Outside U.S., Credit Cards Tighten Grip.

In Turkey, where borrowing money was until very recently a family affair, being in debt carried a fearful stigma. Some here even likened it to the disgrace that drives people to commit the honor killings that still occur in parts of this society.

“People who would kill their sisters or daughters for bringing shame on the family would do anything to avoid being labeled a debtor,” said Nazim Kaya, the president of Consumers Union, an advocacy group that helps those who fall into debt.

But in a cultural shift that has swept aside centuries of tradition, credit cards have become commonplace here. Only three decades ago, Turkey had fewer than 10,000 cards; today it has more than 38 million.

As the American blessing of credit cards became widespread, so did the American curse of debt. Outstanding card debt here ballooned to nearly $18 billion last year, six times the level five years earlier. Default rates spiked and consumer groups protested sky-high interest charges. Newspapers were filled with stories of desperate card holders killing themselves or others.

The "American blessing of credit cards"? Really?