Credit Cards: The Next Financial Crisis?

"I don't think a credit card crisis would be strong enough to collapse a bank under normal conditions, but these aren't normal conditions," he said. "These banks are teetering right now as it is. One more push -- it doesn't have to be a big push -- and it could knock them off the top."

Analysts like Ulzheimer, however, don't see the need to ring any alarm bells and neither, apparently, do the banks.

"We obviously do not know the extent of the current downturn, but the position of our company today is financially sound and competitively strong," American Express CEO Ken Chenault said in a Monday conference call on the company's earnings.

A similar message came from Richard D. Fairbank, the CEO of Capital One, which saw its second-quarter earnings plummet to $452.9 million from $750.4 million last year.

"We remain well-positioned to navigate the near-term economic challenges and to deliver strong shareholder value," he said in a statement last week.

Ulzheimer said that, unlike their mortgage divisions, banks' credit card arms can move quickly to reign in their losses by raising card holder's interest rates and lowering their credit limits.

This happens, he said, when companies realize -- thanks, in part, to monthly credit report reviews -- that a cardholder's ability to make his or her monthly payments may have been jeopardized.

"They have the ability to modify the terms almost on the fly when they see you are more of or less of a risk," he said.

He said companies are also increasingly moving to cancel unused -- and thereby, unprofitable -- accounts to eliminate the costs of maintaining those accounts.

Not all banks pursue the same strategies. A Capital One spokeswoman told ABC News that the company hasn't raised interest rates for any customers since last July.

Interest Rate Rants

Some bottom-line conscious moves have met with blowback. Bank of America came under fire for raising interest rates above 20 percent for some its customers earlier this year. Critics cried that the rate increases were arbitrary and that those slapped with the increases included customers with a history of on-time payments.

Bank of America spokeswoman Betty Riess told ABC News that, last year, 94 percent of the bank's customers saw their interest rates drop or stay the same.

When interest rate hikes do take place, she said, they are decided on a case-by-case basis. She noted that the bank takes into account "external credit criteria" – such as how many loans a person has taken out elsewhere and whether they've defaulted with other lenders – in determining a rate increase.

The bank's careful calculations are of little comfort to customers like Paul Takhar, who has a Bank of America card.

"I think they're taking advantage of the situation. Their interest rates are ridiculous to begin with," he said. Ulzheimer says that, overall, has recently been "buried" in complaints from disgruntled credit card customers.

More are likely to come – Ulzheimer said he expects banks will be grappling with credit card woes for a least another year.

In the meantime, banks should consider reducing how much they expect delinquent credit card holders to pay back – that's Manning's take. He says that banks stand to recoup more that way.

"It makes a lot more sense to come up with a repayment plan of 50 percent rather than 80 percent and push people into bankruptcy," he said.

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