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US Market Sees Credit Card Offers Proliferate

24 November 2021
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United States' issuers push card rewards

The card issuing market has seen an about-face in customer acquisition strategies. The traditional rewards playbook may be no longer fit for purpose as both BNPL and Apple Card reshape consumer expectations.

Recent months have seen big card issuers in the United States pushing the envelope to attract new custom. Provisions put in place by the big lenders for an anticipated wave of defaults never panned out in the US credit card market – thanks to a stream of stimulus payments that, where possible, consumers used to pay down outstanding. Now, with the funding taps back on at the major banks, building profitability is the order of the day. This means attracting and building relationships with US market credit card offers to affluent, confident consumers.

According to Argus Advisory Research, whose payments market report on the United States was recently published, some four-fifths of purchase volume on credit cards now takes place on rewards cards. JPMorgan's reconfiguration of its rewards and benefits on Sapphire credit cards has been the highest-profile such move. US credit card holders are now feted with new bonus categories and point multiplier increases, along with offers of brand-new lounges in major airports for holders of certain Premium variants. Bonus points on, for example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card could be worth as much as $1,250 in travel.

Cashback too, is an ever-increasing phenomenon. Gary Brennan of Argus noted in our Payments News Digest, the Venmo credit card is currently offering double cashback rewards until the end of this year. Traditionally, the focus of rewards programmes, the travel and entertainment sectors were among the worst affected by the pandemic, leading many card issuers to emphasise or augment cashback rewards to incentivise spending as the economy recovers.

Credit card sweeteners help boost uptake

The credit cards market in the US is undergoing a historical change: issuers currently have more opportunities to invest in their product offerings without compressing margins due to better-than-expected credit quality trends during the pandemic. Balance transfer offers too are on the rise, with US Bank's Visa Platinum Card offering an introductory 0% APR that lasts 20 months for qualified applicants. However, the sharp rate of increase for balance transfer offers over the summer is from a reduced, crisis-induced base, and it remains to be seen if consumers will be lured into switching given the exceptional sophistication of loyalty programmes here.

This makes co-brand partnerships even more important differentiators, with Big Tech brands increasingly prevalent and powerful. Perhaps the most notable is the Mastercard-branded Apple Card issued by Goldman Sachs, which, reported Forbes, doubled its cardholders to 6.4 million last year. The second quarter saw card spending intensify as issuers battled to attract big spenders, funding rewards inflation with interchange revenue. Merchant revenue, which includes interchange and acquirer revenue, has overtaken net interest income as the primary source of income once the pandemic-affected spell from 2020-22F is put aside.

It should also not be forgotten that Buy now, pay later (BNPL) is on the rise, meaning that issuers need to pay close attention to drivers in that market, which is increasingly a significant consumer option, especially among the young. Although making up a mere 2% of B2C e-commerce sales in the United States last year and arguably targeted at a different segment, BNPL's purchase value is soaring, up by more than 130% in the first quarter of this year.

The credit card is, as of 2020, responsible for 40% of B2C e-commerce. It is necessary, as the rising cohort of potential credit cardholders emerges, for credit card issuers to sweeten the deal in ways that take account of the consumers' need to feel fairly treated on fees and interest payments (often cited in probes of BNPL's appeal, though not the primary draw it seems).

The pandemic has accelerated the uptake of mobile and contactless payment methods. Given this context, the new real-time payments system, FedNow, due to launch in 2023, should further boost alternative payments and their provisioning ecosystems. Again, credit card issuers need to look at the nuts and bolts of why the Apple Card has been so successful in crafting the user experience.

Changes come fast in the US credit cards market

Issuers must also bear in mind the need for the credit card industry to move its profit pool focus away from interchange, into which it has increasingly leaned in recent years as a funding source for rewards. That revenue stream may come under pressure as the interchange cap lobby increasingly finds a sympathetic ear in Washington. To put it crudely, there is in a pro-consumer rather than pro-Wall Street swing of the partisan political cycle.

Things are changing fast in the American credit cards market, with the landscape set for convulsive reshaping. For now, the brakes are off, at least for unsecured lenders with deep pockets. Store cards and private-label competitors could be under a lot of pressure because of the upswing in cashback. Will such issuers lower acceptance criteria and go sub-prime?

Argus' Gary Brennan sums it up: "The glut of credit rewards and balance transfer offerings from issuers have come at an appropriate time for American consumers, who had been easing their financial pressures through government stimulus, but are now taking advantage of a favourable credit environment and pushing the US cards market to new profitability levels."

Learn more about how the pandemic has impacted the US cards market and how issuers are responding as the economy reopens and the profit pool evolves in Argus Advisory Research's United States cards and digital payments research report.

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