Welcome!
2017-01-06 21:12:08
Your Money: How to Pounce on Best Credit Card Offers (Before Banks Pull Them)

While many of us weren’t paying attention, some credit card sign-up bonuses became so eye-poppingly large that the analysts at Bernstein Research wondered in November if the industry was afflicted with temporary insanity.

One particular bit of madness — a Chase offer that effectively puts $1,500 in your pocket without a lot of effort, if you’re a relatively big spender — is close to ending, and many people have just a few more days to take advantage of it.

But the mere existence of four-figure bonuses on top of the points and perks that come with everyday spending raises a number of questions for consumers.

Even if you thought you’d had enough of card-hopping to get the best deals, shouldn’t you at least grab those 15 100-dollar bills if you have the means? Or might the offers actually get better? And is it time to bet against the stocks of the maniac bankers who are tossing around offers like this?

CHASE, TODAY? First things first: That giant bonus comes from the Chase Sapphire Reserve card. Here’s how it works (and don’t confuse it with the similarly named Preferred card). If the bank accepts your application, you have three months to spend $4,000. Once you do, Chase hands over 100,000 of its proprietary rewards points. Then, you can trade them for $1,500 worth of travel, as long as you book your flights or rooms through Chase.

The card has a $450 annual fee, but it gives back $300 of it each year once you purchase at least that amount in travel. It also gives out a generous amount of points — three per dollar spent — on travel and dining. Plus, you can swap points for miles on many airlines if you want to take your chances with seat availability in those reward schemes. Other perks include access to some airport lounges and a rebate for fees you pay for TSA PreCheck, the expedited security screening, or Global Entry, which speeds international returns.

In cardland, any offer this lucrative tends not to last. This week, Chase said it would cut the 100,000-point bonus in half for anyone who applied online after Jan. 12 or in a branch (which isn’t possible for people in parts of the country where there are no Chase branches) after March 12. To be safe, the company suggests applying online by Jan. 11, before it flips the switch the next day.

Why the change of heart on a product Chase introduced last summer? The company always said the bonus was an introductory offer, and the bank’s generosity led to a $200 million to $300 million hit to its earnings. So the window on a good thing is partially closing.

So should you take advantage of it while you can? My wife and I both have done it, and are glad we did. It has required some mental energy to channel the right amount of spending away from our current card and track the new bills so we don’t end up paying late. But there’s nothing that focuses the mind quite like feeling that you’re beating the system.

This feeling of superiority may be delusional, given the amount of research that suggests that we pay more when we put things on plastic than when we pay with cash. But I consider myself above average in this regard, as we all probably do.

Another big question: Does it make sense to stick with the Chase card, or ditch it after the bonuses clear? One useful exercise is to run your spending patterns (which your card company’s website ought to be able to divide into categories like dining, travel and groceries) through the website creditcardtuneup.com to compare the results with those of a number of leading rewards cards.

It’s a great tool, but the site’s operator has its own opinions about how much a Chase point is worth versus the Starwood points that I collect on my primary American Express card. Your mileage may vary if you, say, swap Chase or Starwood points for frequent-flier miles and then redeem them for $10,000 first-class plane tickets to a faraway country. Think about your goals for the next couple of years and evaluate accordingly.

In our household, we’re reserving judgment. That’s (in part) because Starwood is in the middle of being acquired by Marriott, which faces the challenging task of combining two loyalty programs without driving away big-spending frequent travelers. Sometime in the next year or so, we’ll find out what it’s going to do.

Standard disclaimers apply here, as always. Don’t carry a balance, since interest charges will generally eat up the value of the rewards and then some. Also, applying for too many cards in a short time could hurt your credit score a bit.

IS THE MADNESS CATCHING? Gordon Smith, the chief executive of consumer and community banking at Chase, spent more than 25 years working at American Express, and it was plainly obvious that the bank was aiming Sapphire Reserve squarely at the Amex Platinum card. Indeed, less than two months after the Chase card appeared in August, Amex issued a news release announcing new benefits for Platinum card holders.

Here’s what it didn’t do, though: offer a 100,000-point bribe to every new customer who wanted one of its cards. Its standard online offer is currently 40,000 of its own proprietary points, which are 10,000 fewer than what Chase’s new, lower bonus will be. (Yes, it’s hard to compare the value of different reward currencies, but these two aren’t that far apart, and many consumers never make the distinction and assume they’re the same anyhow.)

Some American Express customers have been luckier, though. Card industry bloggers report that the company has sometimes made targeted bonus offers of 100,000 or even 150,000 points.

Leah Gerstner, an American Express spokeswoman, noted that the company had been in the premium card market for more than three decades, implying that it knew a thing or two about appropriate competitive responses to the latest bright shiny thing.

“What’s worked for us is a mix of targeted sign-up bonuses combined with a range of premium benefits and services,” Ms. Gerstner said. She added that the company had issued “record levels of new cards” while also delivering “sustainable” economics to the company.

In their report in November, the Bernstein Research analysts dangled the tantalizing possibility that American Express might launch some kind of price war, throwing its own sky-high bonuses and privileges at customers. Now that Chase has ratcheted down its sign-up bonus, however, Kevin J. St. Pierre, a Bernstein managing director, thinks the odds of that are low.

“They have inertia on their side, with a long-tenured customer base that is generally satisfied with their product and very satisfied with the service,” he said. “So how much do they need to tweak to defend that?”

PITY NOT THE POOR BANKERS Shareholders (and consumers who are determined to be the least profitable customers of thriving, generous banks) probably shouldn’t panic about the ramifications of the banks’ largess at this point.

Chase would not comment about the performance of Sapphire Reserve, owing to the requirement to stay silent before its coming earnings announcement. Still, it almost certainly modeled the possibility that some people would spend their 100,000-point bonus and then stop using the card. The card’s long-term profitability will depend largely on what percentage of cardholders carry a balance — and how much and for how long.

Mr. St. Pierre said he didn’t lose much sleep over a single, too-generous card offering from a bank of this size. “They are so large that they can afford to experiment,” he said. “A few hundred million in any quarter is a cost of doing business, and they’ll use it, learn from it and improve the product from their perspective and move on.”

Citi’s own plastic pushers have already done a bit of this. Its competing Prestige card reduced some perks several months back, though it kept a unique fourth-night-free hotel benefit. “Our strategic focus is delivering products and experiences that create long, lasting relationships,” said Chris Fred, head of proprietary products for Citi’s cards unit. Bonus chasers and short-term card churners, it seems, are not particularly welcome.

Still, the banks face an existential crisis of sorts. A generation of young adults grew up on debit cards, and banks are going to have to do something to get the millions of them who don’t need to carry a balance to switch to credit anyway. There aren’t a lot of great ways to do it other than throwing ever-larger bonuses and perks at them.

The rest of us, meanwhile, can keep an eye on the bonus offers via blogs like The Points Guy and View From the Wing or on forums like FlyerTalk and Reddit’s card-churning pages. Then — when the going gets as good as it’s gotten in recent months and we want to go on a free vacation — we can sweep in and gleefully pick off the juiciest offers of all.