Bailed-Out Banks To Be Investigated Over Fee Hikes

Oddly enough, banks that didn't receive TARP funds are charging less than they used to for these exact same services. Very strange, don't you think?

Oddly enough, banks that didn't receive TARP funds are charging less than they used to for these exact same services. Very strange, don't you think?

The committee overseeing federal banking-bailout programs is investigating the lending practices of institutions that received public funds, following a rash of complaints about increases in interest rates and fees.

Since the Troubled Asset Relief Program was launched last October, banks bolstered by capital infusions have boosted charges on a wide range of routine transactions, hiked rates on credit cards and continued making loans criticized as predatory by consumer advocates. The TARP funds are intended to open lending spigots and make it easier for people to borrow money.

Last week, for example, Bank of America Corp. told some customers that interest rates on their credit cards will nearly double to about 14%. The Charlotte, N.C., bank, which got $45 billion in capital from the U.S. government, also is imposing fees of least $10 on a wide range of credit-card transactions.

Citigroup Inc., another recipient of government cash, is trying to entice customers to borrow at high rates. "You could get $5,000 today," Citigroup's consumer-finance unit wrote in fliers mailed to customers. The ads don't disclose that the loans often carry annual interest rates of 30%.

The interest rates "compare competitively to similar offers in the market" and vary depending on the creditworthiness of borrowers, a Citigroup spokesman said. Citigroup has received $50 billion in capital from taxpayers, and the U.S. government will soon own as much as 36% of the company's common stock.

"To continue to offer competitive products and services and responsibly lend in this current environment, we must adjust our pricing," said a Bank of America spokeswoman about the company's new fees and interest rates.

The U.S. government's ownership stakes in hundreds of banks, as well as political ire stoked by lucrative pay and perks, are raising the specter of new regulation on basic banking practices. First-quarter results due starting this week will be scrutinized for signs of how much taxpayer-funded capital is being funneled into loans.

Elizabeth Warren, chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel, the body named by Congress to oversee the federal bailout, said the panel is working on a report examining instances of potentially inappropriate lending by banks that got taxpayer capital. "The people who are subsidizing the activities of the banks through their tax dollars are the same people who are furnishing the high profits through consumer lending," Ms. Warren said in an interview. "In a sense, we're asking taxpayers to pay twice."

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