While Congress bickers over how to fix the financial meltdown, there's a decent chance you haven't even felt it. Why, you may be asking yourself, does everyone think there's such a big a problem when you're still being offered credit cards in the mail and 0% financing at the car dealership? Maybe you used to bank with Washington Mutual or Wachovia and overnight you've become a Chase or Wells Fargo customer, but if your money's still there, why does the rest matter?
The tumult at the top of financial markets has not filtered down evenly, but that doesn't mean it's not seeping. There are cracks on Main Street, but whether or not you see them largely depends on where you stand. Just ask anyone who wants to buy a house with a subprime mortgage they're not all evil, but these days they are exceedingly rare or with a jumbo loan, which now carries an average rate 1.2 percentage points above a regular mortgage. (In normal times, the spread is closer to a quarter of a percentage point.) "Some people are saying, 'Credit crunch, what credit crunch?' and others are ready to cry uncle," says Greg McBride, a senior financial analyst at Bankrate.com. "It shows it really matters where you fall on the risk spectrum."
Now, about those credit card offers. You may not feel it, but there are fewer of them going out 1.1 million during the second quarter, down 17% from the same time last year, according to Synovate, a research firm that tracks direct mail. Who's being ignored? Well, subprime borrowers (no surprise there), but also anyone who doesn't make a lot of money: 52% of households with an annual income of less than $50,000 received at least one offer in the second quarter, compared with 66% of such households during the same period last year.
Already got all the credit cards you need? You're still not immune from higher delinquency fees or lower limits. American Express typically cuts the credit limit on about 4% of its members in any given year. That figure now stands closer to 10%, as the card company takes a hard look at customers' credit profiles including data on who lives in the areas with the most house-price deterioration.
For car loans, the division between those who feel the crunch and those who don't often comes down to credit score. The average 60-month new car loan is priced at 7.10%, not much different than in the spring, according to HSH Associates, Financial Publishers and the average rate on a 60-month used car loan, 7.54%, has actually been drifting downward. (Those 0% financing deals still exist, too, from struggling car companies desperate to move inventory.) The difference is, you're probably not going to get that rate (or any at all) unless your FICO score is north of 700, whereas six months or a year ago, a score as low as 620 would have gotten you behind the wheel. "Some of this just represents moving back to standards that were in place five or six years ago," says Paul Taylor, chief economist at the National Automobile Dealers Association. "But if you're a customer, not getting credit you could've gotten a year before looks like a credit crunch to you."
The situation with student loans doesn't break down quite as neatly. Since the summer of 2007, 137 lenders have stopped funding federal loans, and 33 have suspended private programs, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and other financial aid websites. Part of that had to do with a cut in federal subsidies, but part was directly related to the credit crunch issuers that pulled out tended to be those that packaged and resold loans, a market that has evaporated.
Students at community and technical colleges, especially institutions that are for-profit, are having the toughest time of it. The reason: those students are more likely to use private loans (whose credit standards have tightened), and lenders under profit pressure are less willing to write loans for shorter, one- and two-year programs especially at schools with historically high default rates.
Federal loans aren't completely unaffected. While Stafford loans, which are made directly to students and don't take into account credit history, were up in the second quarter compared to a year ago, loans made to parents through the Parent PLUS program have plummeted down 29% in dollar volume year-over-year, according to Department of Education data analyzed by Kantrowitz.
The mood at banks more generally is cautious. The most recent Federal Reserve survey of loan officers showed a plurality of banks tightening credit standards across the board. Add in anecdotal evidence like Bank of America declining to increase lending to McDonald's franchisees even though the two companies have a long-standing partnership and things do seem to be cascading down to Main Street, or whatever road is home to your local fast food joint. In August, 67% of small-business owners said they'd been affected by the credit crunch, compared with 55% in February, according to surveys by the National Small Business Association.
It's not hard to find anecdotes of business booming at credit unions and community banks, which rely on deposits rather than financing in the capital markets. But even there's nuance even there. The amount you can expect from a top-yielding certificate of deposit has fallen from about 5.5% to 4.25% over the past year, according to Bankrate.com. On the surface that seems to indicate banks aren't that worried if they really needed cash, wouldn't they up their rates to attract more money? Well, over the same period of time, the federal funds rate has been cut from 5.25% to 2% a much wider margin. "Banks are hungry for deposits, and that's why yields haven't fallen all that much," says Bankrate's McBride. And CD yields are now on the rise.
Does that mean you're feeling the credit crunch? Maybe not. But it might be an indication that the cracks on Main Street are spreading.