Why are credit card APRs so high?

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With all the recent news about low interest rates, you might be wondering why the interest rate on your credit card is actually high.

For the week of April 7, for instance, the average annual percentage rate on credit cards was at 15.93 percent. This annual percentage rate is the total cost of the credit to you. The periodic interest rate that the issuer applies to your outstanding credit card balance to arrive at your finance charge for a billing period is a part of this.

The high credit card interest rates come about even as the Federal Reserve maintains its target Fed funds rate, to which the interest on variable-rate credit cards is tied, in the 0 percent to 0.25 percent range. The link is that credit card interest rates are priced off the prime rate (which itself is based on the Fed’s targeted interest rate), the rate that banks charge creditworthy corporate customers.

Issuers tack on a margin to this prime rate, which serves as a base rate, to charge interest rates for credit card users. Considering that the U.S. prime rate was at 3.25% on April 6, this is indeed a hefty markup!

Federal Reserve policy

You might also be wondering why the Federal Reserve’s target rate interest rate is itself so low. It seems the Fed is practically giving away money. The target Fed funds rate is the rate at which the Fed desires banks to lend money short-term to each other. The Fed aims for this rate, rather than explicitly setting it. That’s why it’s a target rate.

During times when the central bank wants to boost the economy, it aims to keep lending costs low. The current low interest rate regimen started in 2019 as some concerns about a global slowdown ensued. This rate-cutting action continued as the pandemic hit in 2020, causing the Fed to take down its target rate to its current 0 percent to 0.25 percent range. The Fed also engages in other measures, such as buying securities, to release more money into the economy and lower interest rates.

Similarly, the Fed engaged in boosting the economy during the last recession that started in December 2007 after the housing market collapse impacted the global financial system. Its target rate went down to the 0 percent to 0.25 percent range back then, too. It slowly started to raise rates starting in December 2015.

Why are credit card rates so high?

This again brings up the question, why is there such a big markup on credit card interest rates? While credit card interest rates do tend to trend lower when the Fed starts cutting rates, they don’t tend to get the full impact of the Fed’s rate cuts.

For one, credit card debt is unsecured debt. It is not backed by any collateral, unlike a home loan, for one, that is backed by your house. If you take out a mortgage loan and default on it, the lender can repossess your house. Similarly, if you take out an auto loan and don’t keep your end of the deal to make payments, the lender can take back your car.

Not only that, it seems the delinquency rates on credit card loans tend to be higher than the rates for all consumer loans, according to data from the Federal Reserve. For instance, in April 2020, while the delinquency rate on all consumer loans was at 1.96 percent, the rate on credit card loans was at 2.12 percent.

Another aspect is that the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (the CARD Act) provided more consumer protection. This means card issuers face more risks and that is also reflected in their interest rates.

For instance, among other protections, they have to give consumers advance notice of any hike in interest rates, as well as advance notice of any other significant changes.

How you can get better card interest rates

While you as a consumer can’t manage the macroeconomic factors that cause the Federal Reserve to set its target interest rates, you can still aim for a better interest rate on your credit card debt. Some ways to do this include:

  • Manage your credit responsibly so that you have good credit scores. Those with higher credit scores pose a lower default risk to issuers and they accordingly tend to land better interest rates.
  • Even if you have a higher interest rate and carry a balance, you can pay less interest on your credit card debt if you make payments whenever you can. Since interest on the debt is compounded daily, any money you pay even before your payment is due will bring down the total interest payments you make.
  • If you have held a card for a long time, you could try to negotiate a better rate with your issuer. Considering that it wants to hold on to customers, you might be able to wrangle a better rate.
  • If you are going to be carrying a balance for a while, you could transfer it to a 0 percent balance transfer introductory offer. In this case, you should be vigilant about paying off the balance before this 0% APR introductory period ends so that you don’t end up in the same old place of facing a high interest rate again.
  • You could also pay off a high interest rate card loan using a home-equity loan (which tends to carry a lower rate because it is backed by your home) or a personal loan.

Bottom line

With interest rates so low now, it seems, short of negative interest rates, the only place they can go is up. So now would be a good time to aim for the best interest rate you can wrangle.

Have a credit card question for Poonkulali? Drop her a line at the Ask Bankrate Experts page.