Don't Use Your American Express at Walmart

 I saw an astonishing little aside buried in a Wall Street Journal article about American Express. The article, headlined Delinquencies Mount for American Express, centered on how Amex has paid a price for being lured into the formerly-lucrative revolving charge business.

But the thing that caught my attention was this bit in the middle of the piece:

For example, AmEx recently slapped a $1,100-a-month spending limit on John and Monica Bell’s platinum AmEx charge card. The reason: AmEx customers who pay with plastic at the same places where Mrs. Bell shops and have the same mortgage lender have poor repayment histories, according to a letter sent by AmEx.

“They’re holding me accountable for someone else’s credit,” fumes Mr. Bell, a real-estate agent in Chadds Ford, Pa. His mortgage loan came from Countrywide Financial Corp., now part of Bank of America, and his wife uses the AmEx card at retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and the Marshalls unit of TJX Cos. and to fill up her tank at Sunoco Inc. gas stations.

The couple runs up about $5,000 a month on the card, which previously had no limit, and always pays on time, Mr. Bell says.

Just so you’re clear on the details here . . .  The couple has an American Express Platinum card which they consistently put about $5k a month on, and always pay the full balance on time. But because they occasionally use the card at a local Walmart and Marshall’s, and buy cheap gas, Amex has capped this couple’s monthly use at $1,100.

Why? Because that fits a pattern a computer has identified as being statistically more prone to default–even though they’re never late. I guess you could call this “financial profiling.”

So, the next time you see an Amex commercial that touts “no monthly spending limit,” make a mental note–“Unless you’re a discount shopper.”

This is just one of several indicators I’ve observed recently that the entire corporate world is very, very nervous right now. And this story points up how a recession in the information age might play out differently than any we’ve had in the past.