Award Winning Blog

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

How Smart are Algorithms?

            The algorithmic verdict arrived in less than sixty seconds: credit card application denied.

            My application resulted from a clerk’s scripted suggestion at checkout that I could get a 10% reduction on my 4k HDTV purchase at Best Buy simply by applying for their branded Citibank credit card. Sure, why not?

            Imagine my embarrassment when, at point of purchase, with other buyers in line behind me, “Deadbeat Rob” was holding up the line insisting on his creditworthiness.  After a full minute of “careful consideration,” (language contained in the scripted letter from Citibank explaining its verdict), three coordinating players reached a conclusion that I lacked “sufficient credit experience.”

            A pox of all their bourses: Experian for failing to generate a complete record of my credit “experience” and its policy of preventing interaction with a live person, EVER; Citibank for relying on Experian’s lazy, defective and incomplete credit recording; and Best Buy for allowing Citibank and Experian to ruin my interest in ever setting foot in their stores.

            I base my grievances on the common-sense view that I AM credit worthy: nearing 64, I have managed to make timely payments on six figure mortgages and hefty credit card balances.  I have an 800+ credit rating and five figure credit allowances.  I would reach the important 15-20 year experience with the same credit card, but the number drops to zero almost every time I receive an unsolicited, new card, with a different account number, because of a security breach.

            I have plenty of evidence to prove credit worthiness, if Experian and the other credit rating and reporting companies had algorithms making decisions based on the likelihood of not defaulting.  I have concluded that Experian has a mandate to predict likely use of credit, particularly likely need/inclination to pay on time.  Creditworthiness appears to be a secondary consideration.

            It may be that Experian deemed my credit history “inadequate,” because I have this measurable and reportable history of paying debts on time and a predisposition not to incur debt in the first place.  I apparently lack credit experience, because I have not joined the more common ranks of people willing, or obligated to pay 24% or more on credit card debt.

            I did get the opportunity to discuss this matter with a live, breathing human at Citibank.  She started with a scripted response mentioning that I while I did not “qualify” for a platinum colored card, I could receive a gold one upon paying a $59 annual fee.  With some prodding, she suggested that I could become more experienced with credit if I took out a mortgage, paid interest on credit card debt, used my cards more frequently, generated balances closer to my allowance and used more cards—like most red-blooded Americans.

            This experience and my ongoing research of two-sided markets confirm that people who pay in cash subsidize credit card users and encourage debt, perhaps even unsustainable debt. 

            Perhaps the Experian algorithm detected me as someone unlikely to incur debt, or even to use the credit card regularly.  Guilty as charged.