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Remember the old saying, "Money isn't everything. There's also credit cards, money orders, and travelers checks." Go ahead and add that beauty to the graveyard of financial mottos that have been killed in the past year.
Meredith Whitney -- bank analyst extraordinaire -- predicts that the credit card industry may slash more than $2 trillion of existing credit lines -- 45% of the total -- over the next year and a half. Yikes! The obvious outcome here would be a huge risk reduction for companies that issue consumer credit, such as JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) , Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , and Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , while kicking an already-bloodied consumer -- and to a lesser extent, card processors Visa (NYSE: V ) and MasterCard (NYSE: MA ) -- while they're down.
The big question is whether those consumers deserve to be kicked, with all due respect. Among the more disturbing tidbits Whitney mentions in her report is that credit cards serve as consumers' second most important source of "consumer liquidity," behind actual jobs. Why is it disturbing? In any healthy economy, you'd expect savings to be the closest backstop to job income, not credit cards.
One of the key reasons we're in such a bind right now is that consumers scoffed at saving for a rainy day, and instead spent like there'd be eternal sunshine. Sure, a 45% contraction in credit-card lines will be miserable for some, but the harsh reality going forward is that people will be restricted to purchasing things they can actually afford. I know -- it's a tough concept to grasp.
All of this highlights what I think is one of the biggest fallacies we're facing today: the notion that the key to an economic recovery is getting consumers back to previous spending levels, without realizing that those same levels of spending are partially what ushered in this mess. There's no way around it -- the key to a stabilized economy is to get people to spend less and save more. Unfortunately, that'll mean a reduction in the standard of living for those reliant on plastic to begin with, not to mention the economy as a whole, which is composed of roughly 70% consumer spending.
That said, R.I.P., credit cards. You won't be missed.
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