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Thursday, November 20, 2008

FICO® Credit Score Holds Steady At 804

There are plenty of things I could complain about in my life. My credit score isn't one of them. My FICO® credit score has held steady at 804/805 since May of this year:

My FICO credit score - November 2008 - 804

I was hanging out in a CNBC forum the other day and came across an interesting thread. The user has a FICO credit score of 788, but is still worried about a comment in his credit report that reads, "amount owed on revolving accounts is too high." I know this comment well. I posted about this back in the summer of 2006 when my credit score hit 719. Yeah, it looks bad, but, in my opinion, that's just the FICO system's way of telling you that if you want to have a score of 800+, pay your revolving accounts down to zero. It's nothing to panic about. This note disappeared from my report when I paid all my personal credit card balances down to zero.

The fact that I still had a balance on one of my business credit cards at the time did not matter, since healthy business credit card debt is reported to business credit rating systems like Dun & Bradstreet's Paydex or Experian's Intelliscore service.

Now, if I ever get into trouble with one of my business credit cards and default (God forbid), the issuing bank(s) will almost certainly report the negative item(s) to all consumer credit monitoring agencies (TransUnion, Equifax and Experian.) They have the right to do this since I signed a personal guarantee when I opened my business credit card accounts, which is standard practice.

Even with my current score of 804, I'm seeing the following notes in my report as reasons why my score isn't higher than 804:

  • "The time since your most recent account opening is very recent

  • The length of time your revolving/charge accounts have been established is too short"

The top one I can understand since I only recently stopped chasing 0% credit card offers. But I find the second note quite funny since I have accounts so old that I'd even forgotten they existed.


Avoiding Interest Charges on My Main Business Credit Card

There is a certain balance on my business credit card that I have been targeting. This target balance allows me to have enough cash to save to for retirement (Roth IRA, of course!), pay my bills and child support, and have a little left over for savings (I wouldn't have a balance at all if the credit crisis never happened, but that's life.) Now, with this particular target balance, finance charges are applied every month. However, I've managed to avoid having to pay any interest by using the rewards points I earn each month to "purchase" a statement credit of $50.

My target balance is $4,000. Since this business card has an APR of 9.99%, the daily periodic rate for purchases is:

  • 9.99/365 = 0.02737%

  • 0.02737% is the same as 0.0002737

So with my preferred target balance, I am charged $4,000 x 0.0002737 = $1.0948 interest per day. This makes the interest I owe each month in the $34 range, which gives me some breathing room since I can't predict the exact amount that I'll purchase on this card every month. As long as the finance charges are $50 or less, I'm good.

How do I manage to stay close to my target balance? Easy! I login to my account at least every other day and check my balance. When my balance is looking too high, I schedule and online payment. Quick and easy. Whenever I make a major purchase, i.e. over $500, I make an online payment immediately, so that I don't mess up my average daily balance.

So, if you've been paying attention, your next question is likely, "so how much do you have to spend each month to get a $50 statement credit?" Easy. A $50 statement credit requires 5,000 rewards points. I get 1 rebate point for each dollar I spend on the card. So I have to spend $5,000 per month. In other words, it's a 1% cash back rewards program.

During the good times, when I'm able to pay my balance to zero every month, my points accumulate and roll over, which gives me plenty to play with during the bad times (I had about 28,500 points stored up when the credit crunch took a serious turn for the worse a couple of months ago. Converted all those points to statement credits.) However, my points do expire if I don't use them within two years, which is quite reasonable in my opinion.

So, with this technique, it would seem as though I could have a 0% business credit card forever, just as long as I keep spending and avoid having an average daily balance above the $4,000 threshold (this card has no annual fee.) But the reality is a "fixed" rate of 9.99% can disappear without much notice. That's because credit card issuing banks invariably reserve the right to modify the terms of each credit card account whenever they wish, as long as they give you warning of an impending rate increase and the option to opt out of it. Citi and American Express have plans to raise APR's for millions of their credit card customers.

This technique requires that I do a lot of spending on this card each month, which has worked out fine since I've been buying a lot of advertising lately. Even as business improves and I'm able to pay down my balance a bit, I have another statement credit tier to work with: I can get a statement credit of $20 in exchange for 2,500 rewards points. As you can see, this tier isn't as equitable as the top tier I described above, but I can still work with it. Maintaining an average daily balance of $2,500 would produce an interest charge of about $21.21, so I'd need to keep my average daily balance at around $2,200 (interest would be $18.67) and spend at least $2,500 per month.

Of course, I'd much rather end this game and return to the good old days of paying my balance in full each and every month. Yes, I'm taking full advantage of my card's rewards program -- and I enjoyed 0% on new purchases and a transferred balance for a year -- which is great. But by having a revolving balance, I'm playing right into the hands of my bank. Bottom line: this scheme could easily blow up in my face if my business has a really bad month.

Some credit cards offer up to 5% cashback on everyday purchases like gas, travel, home improvement, dining out, etc. The Discover More card is the perfect example. For some reason, I wasn't able to get a Discover More card, despite having a good credit score when I applied. When I submitted my application for this card, my FICO score was in the upper 700 range, yet my application was rejected. I checked my credit reports after that rejection, and found nothing wrong. Go figure. If you can get this card, do it. If you already have one, cool. The rewards are peerless in generosity, it comes with 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers and the "goto" APR isn't that bad (as low as 10.99%, variable) when compared to competing consumer cards in the American market.

But I'm not complaining. I like my flagship business card. It's a business purpose card, which enables me to have credit card debt and a high personal credit score simultaneously. Plus, the process that my issuing bank has setup for claiming statement credits is efficient and stress free. I just login to my account and within a few clicks of my mouse I've traded my points for a statement credit. Lovely. My other business cards either have APR's that are too high for my taste and credit standing (so I keep them for building credit and emergencies only) or, as is the case with my newest business card, the credit limit is way too low.

Discover has some relatively new business credit cards on the market now, and the rewards are quite generous, though not as generous as the Discover More consumer credit card I noted above. I'd love to apply for this card, but I'm gun shy as a result of my previous rejection.

So, why I am not recommending my favorite business credit card here? Good question. The answer is simple: it's not available anymore. A victim of the current credit crisis. In fact, I just visited the issuing bank's website to see what other business credit cards they have on offer, and found none. The market for business credit card receivables dried up last month (a receivable is any debt owed to a company/corporation that is not paid in full yet.)

Before the onset of autumn this year, my bank could take my $4,000 business credit card balance, bundle it with other credit card receivables and sell the debt to Wall Street. But investors don't want to buy that kind of debt right now because credit card defaults are rising, even with accounts held by prime borrowers.

Want to know when global credit markets will improve? Stay tuned to the TED spread (the TED spread is the difference between the yield on the 3-month Treasury Bill and the 3-month LIBOR yield; it's a reliable indicator of banks' willingness to lend.) Once it falls below 1.00 percentage point, banks will start (probably with baby steps at first) lending like they did before this decade's housing boom.

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Friday, November 14, 2008

If You Have A Citi® Credit Card, Watch Out: Your APR May Be On Its Way Up

image: money flying awayWe all know how profitable credit cards are for the banks that issue them. So it's really hard to believe that the credit card unit of America's biggest bank lost close to $1 billion during the third quarter of this year. Citi® made $1.4 billion during the third quarter of 2007.

So what's Citi going to do about it? Yup, you guessed it: raise interest rates on a substantial percentage of the bank's 54 million active credit card accounts. Here's a clip from today's Wall Street Journal article:

"...Meanwhile, Citigroup is notifying some credit-card customers that their interest rates are being raised by an average of three percentage points.

Citigroup is one of the nation's largest issuers of credit cards, with 54 million active accounts. The unit had a loss of $902 million in the third quarter, compared with $1.4 billion in profit a year earlier, as a growing number of customers fell behind or defaulted on their payments.

A person familiar with the strategy estimated that the rate increases would apply to less than 20% of Citigroup's card portfolio..."
If Citi has decided to target your credit card account for a rate increase, you will be able to opt out by calling of sending a letter to Citi by the end of January 2009. Citi will let you continue to use your card and keep your current APR until the card expires.

American Express is also planning to raise rates by 2 to 3 percentage points for certain Amex credit card cardholders.

The New York Times has a similar article about this here.

It's getting ugly out there folks. Time to payoff those credit cards.

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Is 5.00% APY On A 3-Year CD A Good Deal Right Now?

stock market crashWith all the chaos in the American banking system going on right now, consumers across the country are looking to for the safest place to store and grow their hard-earned dollars. The stock market crashed last week, with double-digit declines for each of the 3 major indexes. Though American equities regained some ground today, we are still dealing with a serious bear market. From the Prime Rate website:

"...Since closing with record highs on October 9, 2007, the DJIA has now lost 5,713.34 points (40.336%), while the S&P 500 Index has declined by 665.93 points (42.547%). The record high for the DJIA is 14,164.53; for the S&P 500 Index it's 1,565.15..."
Most of us don't trade individual stocks on a regular basis, but most of us are linked to stocks by our retirement savings, like 401(k) and 403(b) plans. The waning stock market is especially bad news for those near retirement, as most portfolios have lost a lot of value this year.

I Am Grateful for The Conservative Ways of Credit Unions

Back in 2003, when the Federal Reserve dropped the fed funds target rate to 1.00%, which in turn caused the U.S. Prime Rate to drop to 4.00%, I was very interested in a credit card on offer from my credit union. The APR was 6.99% fixed, and the typical credit line for this particular Visa® card was $5,000. I wanted this card bad, not just because of the interest rate, but also because it was from my credit union, and I knew that the term and conditions associated with this card would be more consumer-friendly than any card on offer from any traditional bank.

When I applied for the card, my application was met with fierce resistance. My credit score wasn't that bad, but I was, and still am, self-employed, so my credit profile must have caused one or more red flags go up. The loan offcredit cardicer who reviewed my application asked for 2 years of tax returns and proof that I was making the money that I claimed I was making on the application. I submitted all the documentation they wanted (took about a week to fax it all), but, in the end, my application was rejected. I did not received a canned "dear john" letter from the credit union. The loan officer called me at my home and explained that the credit union could not approve my credit card application because I did not have enough collateral with them, i.e. I did not have enough cash on deposit. I was told that I could reapply at any time. That rejection was painful, but I understood: the best credit cards on offer from the best financial institutions will only go to consumers who are very secure financially. If I had around $5k in my saving or checking account, I probably would have been approved.

Play it very safe; lend conservatively; don't lend unless the member has been thoroughly vetted. It's because my credit union stuck by these principles that it has managed to avoid the financial ravages caused by the excesses of Wall Street investment banks and the debt associated with lending hundreds of thousands of dollars to first and second homeowners who couldn't afford the monthly payments. Wall Street banks like Citigroup® chased the 11%-13% returns promised by super risky mortgage-backed securities, and, when the subprime fiasco was unfolding last year, ended up paying 11% on a loan from the sovereign wealth fund owned by oil-rich Abu Dhabi. Bottom line: Citi® was relegated to subprime borrower status because they got sloppy and too greedy. They were, in essence, issued an 11% APR subprime credit card by a foreign government that makes unbelievable sums of money for doing next to nothing. How's that for irony?

Is 5.00% APY On A 3-Year CD A Good Deal Right Now?

Right now, financial institutions are really into Certificates of Deposit (CD's),credit union CD rates as evidenced by the high yields being offered these days. A week ago, my credit union was offering -- and they were pushing this offer very hard -- a generous 5.00% APY on a 3-year CD (CD's are called Share Certificates at credit unions), which may seem kinda' weird, because, as you can see in the screen capture image I've posted to the right, the rates on offer for 42 and 60 months are lower. Should be: the longer you let them hold your money, the better the interest rate you get, right?

The target rate at which most healthy American banks and credit unions can borrow overnight funds from each other via the Federal Reserve -- the target fed funds rate -- was lowered to 1.50% last Wednesday, and is expected to be lowered again at the October 29 FOMC meeting. With all the turmoil in the credit markets, the Fed has allowed financial institutions to borrow vast sums at very low interest rates and for terms much longer than overnight[1][2][3]. But the prospect of locking in a rate of 5% for 3 years is very tempting for my credit union, because they know how rates are going to look about a year from now.

With all the money the Fed is dumping into the American and international banking systems, the price we'll all have to pay for the Fed delivering truckloads of cheap cash at the doorsteps of our bankssavings and nest egg is inflation. A lot of money is being dumped in an effort to loosen up frozen credit markets, and this will inevitably translate to high inflation down the road. The Fed will respond to runaway inflation by raising interest rates, no matter how anemic the economy is. Since all that money that'll be sloshing around in the economy is likely to cause inflation to accelerate at a fast clip, the fed funds target rate (FFTR) will likely be raised to a relatively high level. The median FFTR from 1990 to now is 4.5%; the average is 4.367%. Don't be surprised if the FFTR is 6.0% or higher 12 months from now.

So if my credit union can lock in 5% for 3 years, and the FFTR will go to 6.0% or higher within 12 months or so, then you can see that my credit union will have gained the advantage by the time the CD matures.

So, is investing in a 3-year CD @ 5.00% APY a good idea right now? Absolutely! But, if you can, go for a 12-month CD for now, or reserve as much cash as possible for next year. When the Fed ends the next cycle of raising the FFTR, I'm betting that you will be able to get even better returns with 3-5 Year CD's, so much better that I'm confident it'll be worth the wait.

Yes, I am grateful for my credit union. My Roth IRA has continued to grow despite all the nonsense going on in the banking system. And I'm confident that I have nothing to worry about.

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