Through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), the Biden administration has proposed a regulation to cap how much credit card companies can charge us when we’re late on a payment to just $8. 

This sounds great on the surface, right? 

Lower fees mean less stress when we’re struggling to make ends meet, as inflation-adjusted average weekly earnings have been down 4.2 percent. But, as with many things that seem too good to be true, there’s a catch. 

This well-meaning price control could make things the most challenging for those it’s supposed to help.

First, why do credit card companies charge late fees? It’s not just about making an extra buck. These fees support more credit available for everyone and encourage us to pay on time, which helps the credit system run smoothly.

Now, the CFPB is shaking things up by setting a price ceiling on these fees at $8. While it could save us some money if we slip up and pay late, credit card companies will find ways to compensate for this lost income. 

And how do they do that? Well, they might start charging more for other things, tightening who they give credit to, or increasing interest rates. That means, in the end, credit could be more expensive and harder to get for all of us.

Not just individuals who could feel the squeeze, but small businesses, too. 

Many small businesses rely on credit to manage their cash flow and growth. If banks start being pickier about who they lend to or raise their fees, these small businesses will find it more costly to get credit. This isn’t just bad news for them; it’s bad news for everyone, as the result will be higher prices for consumers, lower wages, and fewer jobs for workers.

Remember that small banks and credit unions are a big deal for the local economy. These institutions often depend on fees to keep things running. If they can charge less for late payments, they might not be able to lend as much. This could hit communities hard, making it tougher for people to get loans for starting a small business, buying a home, or building a project.

Economists have long warned about the dangers of well-intentioned but poorly thought-out regulations. By setting a one-size-fits-all rule for late fees, the government would make credit more expensive and less accessible for everyone. The idea is to protect us from unfair fees, but the real-world result would be different if access to credit were limited for those who need it most.

History proves that often the biggest challenge is to protect consumers from the consequences of government actions. In trying to shield us from high late fees, the government will set us up for a situation where credit is harder to come by and more expensive. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to protect consumers. Still, we need to think carefully about the consequences of our actions and let markets work, which is the best way to protect consumers as they have sovereignty over their purchases.

While capping credit card late fees sounds like a simple fix, the ripple effects would be complex and wide-reaching. It’s crucial to keep credit accessible and affordable, support small businesses, and ensure the financial system remains robust. 

Let’s look at the implications of this price control regulation before rushing into it. Price controls never work as intended, as history has proven. Instead, we should ensure people in the marketplace determine what’s best for them rather than the Biden administration’s top-down, one-size-fits-none approach. 


Vance Ginn, Ph.D., is the president of Ginn Economic Consulting, host of the Let People Prosper Show, and was previously the associate director for economic policy of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget, 2019-20. Follow him on at @VanceGinn.