If you're anything like me, you're sick to death of hearing about the "green shoots" that are supposedly signaling an upcoming economic recovery. Even a casual glance at the news makes my eyes roll: the supply of unsold homes has dropped for the second month in a row. Wow, so our real-estate crisis is over, right? Retail sales and the unemployment rate weren't "as bad" as experts thought they would be. "Not as bad" isn't good enough to boost confidence that things are getting better for most Americans.
Sure, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase are announcing profits, but they wouldn't be allowed to fail even if they were throwing TARP money out the window. Meanwhile, there are millions of us out there struggling with what I call the poverty trifecta: high food prices, rising gas prices and increased credit-card debt.
As individuals, we're too small to bail out, but I think it may be time to reconsider that strategy. The economy still rests on the shoulders of the average grocery-buying citizen. So shouldn't we collectively also be considered too big to fail? Here are a few areas that could use a little attention from the folks in Washington:
1. Come Clean on Credit Scores
If I understand this right, the Fair Isaac Corp. uses a top-secret formula to determine a number ("FICO") to indicate my creditworthiness. Banks, hospitals, landlords and employers all use it to figure out if I pay my bills. People hold high FICO scores like a badge of honor, and those of us with a bad score simply change the subject and hope no one asks us about it.
But, if this number is so, so, so important to my everyday life, why is it so difficult to figure out how it's derived? Opening new credit-card accounts can lower your score. Closing cards can lower your score. Using your card can lower your score. Not using your card can lower your score. Paying only the minimum balance will definitely keep your FICO from improving, but (can you guess?) so can paying the full balance every month. Too many requests for credit or too many credit checks? You got it—down, down, down.
Want to improve your credit score? Well, FICO will sell you a package to fix the score that it creates. Doesn't that sound like something Tony Soprano would do?
2. Rein in Fees
Thankfully for the individual, Congress passed the Cardholders' Bill of Rights this week. It puts limits on when banks can raise interest rates and apply late fees. But we need to continue to fight onerous fees wherever we find them. Banks will still make tons of money charging anywhere from $10 to $50 for overdraft fees, wiring fees, money-order fees, check-cashing fees, fees to use the teller, minimum-balance fees, fees to use your debit card in a foreign country, account-maintenance fees, etc. And since "free" checking accounts don't usually earn interest unless you have an enormous balance, you might actually save more money by hoarding it in coffee cans.
And don't even get me started on ATM fees. Some banks charge up to $3 if you're not an account holder. Plus, your own bank may charge you for using other banks' ATMs. What's next? A $15 fee for establishing eye contact with a teller or to get some quarters for the laundry? A little relief from these expenses might raise confidence in the people who hold our money and give us a bit more to actually spend on goods and services.
3. Take Another Look at How TARP Money Is Used
While we're going cross-eyed looking for green shoots, Wall Street is busy going back to business as usual. The New York Times reported that financial firms are on track to pay the same bloated salaries they paid last year, with $36 million already set aside for employee compensation. I'm sure there's some complicated economic reason why banks are using their TARP bucks to pay themselves, but do we really have to pay for their lobbying costs too? This is the same lobbying that killed foreclosure relief for homeowners and resisted the Cardholders' Bill of Rights.
Jeez, at least at a casino, when you lose your money, you know exactly why. And you don't have to give the casino even more money to help them stack the chips more in their favor.