Money-Changers Put the Squeeze On

They come at you in steps usually.

Step 1: Lower interest rates to entice you to go into debt

Step 2: Convince you that those interest rates are going to stay low forever if you just keep spending money you don’t have to keep the economy growing when it’s actually not

Step 3: When you fall for Steps 1 & 2 and you’re thoroughly trapped, start raising interest rates on fears of ‘inflation’

By several measures, Americans are more indebted than ever. Through the first quarter, they owed nearly $9 trillion in home mortgages, car loans, credit card debt, home equity loans and other forms of personal borrowing — accumulating nearly 40 percent of this total in just four years, according to published Federal Reserve data. But most of the debt is at fixed interest rates. Thus it will be unaffected initially as the central bank begins its much expected quarter-point increases in the so-called federal funds rate, now at a 46-year low of 1 percent. The federal funds rate, in turn, influences the interest rate cost of most household and commercial debt.

Only one-fifth of the $9 trillion in total household debt, or $1.8 trillion, is borrowed at variable rates. Variable rates, like those that the Diffenderfers pay on their four credit cards, often track what the Fed does, which means they are likely to rise one-quarter of a percentage point over the next few weeks. The immediate cost for the nation’s households as a result of this process could be as much as $4.5 billion, including the initial $35 increase in the Diffenderfers’ monthly credit card bill.

The $4.5 billion is roughly 10 percent of the cost of the rise in oil prices so far this year. That is not a big number yet, but each quarter-point increase would be another step closer to matching the oil shock, which brought gasoline prices above $2 a gallon in many parts of the country.

While the oil shock quickly raised the gasoline and heating oil bills of nearly every household, the burden of higher interest payments falls most heavily in the early stages on lower- and middle-income families. They are the biggest users of variable rate debt, particularly on credit cards, various studies show.

Upper income families, on the other hand – that is, families with more than $80,000 in annual income – are more likely to have fixed rate debt, particularly mortgages, and to owe relatively little on their credit cards. What variable rate debt they do have is usually at lower interest rates than lower income people. Lower income people, as a result, are 10 times more likely than upper income people to be devoting 40 percent or more of their income to debt repayment, the Economic Policy Institute reports. In addition, upper income people are the nation’s biggest savers, and a rate increase raises the return on their interest-bearing securities.

Maybe they’re the biggest savers because the income distribution is now so top-heavy that they’re then only ones with extra money. Yah think? Here’s the way the scam works:

The Diffenderfers have a combined income of nearly $70,000 a year, including the overtime he earns and the small payments she receives as assistant organist at her church. They have been married 17 years but they lived with her mother for the first 11, paying her rent. When they finally bought a house of their own in 1998, for $89,000, they had nothing saved for a down payment, and borrowed the entire amount through a 30-year mortgage. They also took out a second mortgage, for $30,000, which they invested in remodeling the home: aluminum siding, a new bathroom and a refinished living room with oak trimmed walls.

As interest rates fell, they refinanced both mortgages, locking in a 5.25 percent fixed interest rate for 30 years. Still, the remodeling continued, mainly on credit cards once the $30,000 was exhausted. Their three-bedroom house is now worth nearly $120,000, almost equal to the mortgage debt, Mrs. Diffenderfer estimates. That leaves the couple with no spare equity that can be extracted in cash through a bigger mortgage. Nor can they lower their $726-a-month mortgage payment. With mortgage rates already rising in anticipation of the Fed’s increases, that once lucrative route for millions of consumers is closing.

The Diffenderfers have only their salaries to meet the rising cost of their variable rate credit card debt, although for a while Mrs. Diffenderfer managed to reduce the interest payments by switching the balances to new credit cards whenever she could get a lower rate. The interest rates on her cards now average just under 10 percent, partly through her efforts to find teaser discounts and partly because credit card companies dropped their rates several percentage points, a decline now likely to be reversed.

That’s putting it mildly. We have to stop this madness, people. They’ve got us coming-and-going. It doesn’t matter whether you slave to buy–and keep–your own home or rent an apartment, they treat our necessities as an opportunity for theft, and they’ve got a hundred ways of tricking us into looking the other way while they lift our wallets. We need to get smarter and we need to fight back. It’s a rigged game and we’re the marks.

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