We don't yet have the technology to read other people's minds (although the public use of cell phones has given us unprecedented access to the private lives of perfect strangers). But in the world of banking, consumers have come pretty close to crawling into their lender's headspace.
With just a few clicks (and a nominal entrance fee), we can scroll down memory lane and see a history of our credit cards, loans, and late payments; figure out what interest rates we'll likely be offered; and even get a glimpse of what could be if we pay off an account here, close one there, get a raise, or refinance.
In short, we have a pretty good idea of what our banker sees in us.
It was only in recent years that the veil of banking secrecy was lifted. Before March 2001, the all-telling credit score was known only in the circles of lending professionals. And that was a crying shame. Sure, you could check out your credit report and see if that Limited Express credit card you vaguely remember opening in college was still active. But missing from your rap sheet was one key bit of data: three simple numbers that spoke volumes about how you handled your finances.
What consumers couldn't get their hands on before 2001 was their overall credit score (based on a formula developed by Fair Isaac Corp. and referred to as one's "FICO score"). Those three magic digits, ranging from the low 300s to the mid 800s, define our credit-worthiness. It is the make-or-break number that determines whether we're worthy borrowers -- how much interest we pay on our mortgages, what APR we get on our credit cards, whether we qualify for a Saks Fifth Avenue Mink Card, and even what premiums home and auto insurers think we deserve.
Then in 2001, in a move that made Big Brother shudder, FICO went public. No, not the company. (It has been traded publicly since 1987, first on the Nasdaq and then in 1996 on the NYSE under the ticker symbol FIC.) Even more exciting than an IPO, FICO opened its files to the average card-carrying Joe, letting the little guy get a glimpse of the banking world's divining rod.
And the insider information keeps flowing. At myFico.com, you can peer into the average American's private financial affairs, where you'll learn that the typical consumer has 11 credit obligations on record; less than four out of 10 have ever paid a bill 30 days or more late; that almost half carry credit card debts less than $1,000, but that 10% have $10,000 or more on plastic; and that the majority of us have had just one inquiry into our credit record in the past year.
It seems that with each passing month, I hear about new ways the credit reporting bureaus are disseminating their data. Last month, Experian released its first study of nationwide credit usage, and we learned that the number to beat was 678 -- that's the national average credit score based on 3 million randomly sampled files. Just over two weeks ago, we got a glimpse of the average scores for 20 major metropolitan areas. (For the competitive souls out there, Minneapolis ranks at the top with an average score of 707, followed closely by the inhabitants of Boston and Washington, D.C.; Phoenix, Houston, and Dallas are at the bottom of the list with average scores of 660 and below.)
With all this sharing going on, it feels a little like the year 2000, when the Securities and Exchange Commission passed Regulation Fair Disclosure, whereby publicly traded companies had to simultaneously share the exact same company information with individual investors that they did with Wall Street insiders.
But unlike the consumer-friendly guidelines for the securities trade, the lending industry disclosure policy can't quite be described as "full."
Unlike Regulation FD, the credit-reporting industry is allowed to be selective about what it shares and with whom. The formula used to calculate one's credit score is proprietary (it's how Fair Isaac earns a living, after all), and FICO offers only general guidelines to how your score is calculated (though knowing that your payment history and how much you owe account for 65% of your overall score is still extremely useful for those looking to clean up their credit).
There's something else consumers should know. The FICO score for sale to the public is not exactly the same one that your banker uses to base his lending decisions. Instead, you get a consumer version of your credit score. Some community members on the Consumer Credit/Credit Cards discussion board have discovered as much as a 20-point discrepancy between the score they ordered off the site and the one in their mortgage broker's inbox.
Those kinds of inconsistencies are alarming, particularly when money decisions in the hundreds of thousands of dollars (say, a typical mortgage) are on the line. Additionally, if you're shopping for insurance for your car or home, understand that those providers consulting credit reports use yet another version of the credit score generator built with their industry's risk models in mind.
So while consumers have access to more personal credit information than ever, the actual data the pros use to make their business decisions are still pretty much off-limits.
Bye-bye, black box
Let's flash back just a few decades ago to a young couple in their buttoned-up Sunday church garb, squirming in the straight-backed chairs as their hometown banker worked the adding machine to determine what -- if any -- loan they would get. Contrast that to today's savvy consumer, consulting her credit file online, disputing inaccurate information like a pro, and rate shopping over morning coffee in her pj's and flip-flops.
What would that first couple have given to peek into their credit file? They'd see a rundown of all of their addresses, contact information at home and the office, a list of every loan (outstanding and ones paid off years ago), inquiries by others into the couple's credit history, and even notations by lenders or themselves. Armed with their credit score, they'd instantly see what interest rates they'd likely to be offered for home, auto, home equity, and credit card loans. And even though their overall credit GPA might not be exactly what their banker sees, it would give them a general sense of how they stack up in the eyes of the lending industry.
That's a lot better than the black box of lending to which consumers used to be subjected.
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Dayana Yochim is an adult survivor of credit cards. She owns none of the companies mentioned in this article, but has ordered credit reports from most of them. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy has a FICO score of 822.