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Another way to boost the economy: Cut credit card rates

October 28, 2011: 10:28 AM ET

Policymakers are overlooking a huge opportunity to jumpstart consumer spending. Average credit card interest rates are still a high 14%.

FORTUNE -- Judging by how economists and policymakers appear to have locked in on fixing housing prices and mortgage burdens, consumer spending looks to be the best bet for jumpstarting the economy.

Policymakers are ignoring a huge opportunity on that front, failing to see another burden that caps the spending by the average consumer: credit cards interest rates. Overall, interest rates are at historic lows -- since December 2008 the Fed has kept its target rate at 0.25% and 30-year mortgages are at previously unheard of sub-4% levels.

Yet the average credit card interest rate is now 14.26%, according to Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com, which tracks all 1,000-plus credit cards in the marketplace. That is up sharply from 11.64% in May 2009. If you want consumers to spend more, fixing the mortgages of those underwater may help. But lowering the interest rate millions more Americans pay on their credit cards would help much more.

Since before the financial crisis of 2008, consumers have been cutting back on their debt loads, with the debt service payment to disposable income falling 17% from October 2007 by this summer to 11.5% of disposable income. The most recent Federal Reserve data continues to show Americans are cutting back on their credit card debt -- it fell 4.6% in August, after rising earlier in the year. In 2010 and 2009, revolving debt fell 4.4% and 1.7%, respectively. We are all setting our personal finances right by carrying less debt.

That's a good thing. But that lack of spending is a problem for economic growth. The economy was bolstered during the third quarter by a surprisingly strong surge in consumer spending -- up 2.4% -- but we still have a long way to climb out of the sluggish economy. And absent a massive government stimulus to create jobs and spark new industries, it falls to consumers to spend more to grow the economy. Spending more in turn generates sales taxes which lowers pressure on municipalities, it creates jobs in retail and manufacturing, getting more people back toward being able to spend more themselves. It also likely boosts the fortunes of those spending, making the higher debt level more manageable. The issue at hand is getting that cycle started.

Consider the spending power unleashed by an across the board cut in credit card interest rates.  Americans now carry $2.44 trillion in revolving debt. At the current average interest rate, that costs $372 billion in interest payments in one year. Drop card rates to 10% and it immediately frees up $120 billion for Americans to spend. That's about $1,100 for each and every 112 million U.S. households. By comparison the revamped mortgage program announced earlier this week is estimated to generate about twice that benefit, but  for just 5 million households at best.

Granted there are huge hurdles to the idea: for one, if issuing banks didn't cut rates voluntarily, it would then fall to the government to mandate lower credit card rates. Still, that's not unheard of -- most states do cap interest rates and in 2009 the government mandated credit card payments go to highest interest rate debt first. But it's not ideal, says Hardekopf. "Whenever banks are restricted in making money in one area, they find another way to make that money. It comes back to haunt the consumer." Just look at the current spate of debit card fees in reaction to caps on network fees charged to retailers. It's bad enough that many big banks have decided not to follow the lead of Bank of America (BAC), Wells Fargo (WFC) and a few others in charging steep monthly fees.

Maybe there's another way. Until the tax reform of 1986, credit card interest was a tax deduction for everyone. Bringing it back may be just a way to lighten the middle class's excessive tax burden, making them feel less like paupers and a little more like Warren Buffett.

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