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Good customers may get pinched

W ELCOME TO the U.S. Financial Crisis: Credit Card Edition.

Banks, already battered by bad mortgages, are now bracing for more bad news as squeezed consumers default on their credit cards. They are pulling back on new credit offers and putting stricter limits on existing accounts.

The nation’s nearly $1 trillion credit-card balance pales in comparison to the amount owed on U.S. mortgages. But credit card debt is riskier. When a customer can’t pay his Visa bill, there is no property for the bank to sell to recoup some of its losses.

It will only get worse as credit dries up and unemployment continues to rise.

Against that backdrop, banks are trying every trick in the book to reduce their risk and even good customers are feeling the pinch.

A borrower might see his credit limit slashed for no other reason than he lives in an area with a high rate of home foreclosures or he works in an industry wracked by layoffs. Cardholders who never carry a balance are getting notices that they better ring up some charges or risk a closed account.

Some of what the banks are doing might prove a healthy wake-up call for the American economy, which has become far too dependent on sky-high credit limits and credit card offers by the dozens.

The problem is that lower credit limits and canceled credit cards affect borrowers’ credit scores, which in turn could hobble responsible borrowers’ ability to get low-interest loans. Those are the very borrowers that banks need more of, not less.

Regulators and lawmakers should ensure that the nation’s credit agencies hold harmless prudent consumers who see their accounts closed or credit limits rolled back through no fault of their own.

Responsible borrowers shouldn’t have to pay twice for the reckless era of easy credit that the banks themselves helped spawn.

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