Have Cards, Will Travel

Credit card comeback from recession nearly complete

Sabrina Karl
Personal Finance Writer
Data whiz and visual storyteller


When the financial crisis hit at the tail end of 2007, card issuers immediately tightened the purse strings on new credit, especially to consumers with subprime scores. As a result, the number of new card accounts plummeted, and only recently – almost a decade later – have they again approached pre-recession levels.

The American Bankers Association has tracked the number of new credit card accounts every quarter since the start of 2008. Defined as cards opened within the last 24 months, early 2008 saw 91.7 million new accounts.

Fast forward about 10 years to the third quarter of 2017, the ABA’s latest reading, and new card accounts have finally reclaimed virtually all of their lost ground, sitting just shy of the high-water mark at 91.6 million new cards.

But the storyline includes three subplots, when prime, subprime and super-prime accounts are spotlighted separately. For the middle-tier prime accounts, their post-recession history roughly mirrors that of total new accounts. Though 2016 saw prime accounts climb past the 2008 peak, since then the number has crept only slowly upward to 30.6 million new cards, putting them just slightly ahead of the 29.5 million seen pre-recession.

Meanwhile, subprime accounts, or those opened by consumers with a credit score below 680, plunged the most dramatically during the recession and have only partially recovered. Compared to the 34.6 million new cards in early 2008, new subprime accounts have crawled back to just 27.3 million by 2017 Q3.

All three credit tiers saw deep valleys in the second half of 2010, but the recovery trend for new super-prime accounts – opened by consumers with a credit score of at least 760 – has ascended the most quickly. New super-prime accounts surpassed their 2008 level of 27.6 million cards by early 2014, and have kept rising to a 2017 Q3 reading of 33.6 million.

The American Bankers Association releases its Credit Card Market Monitor every quarter, drawing on data from a nationally representative sample provided by Argus Information Services. Its report on 2017 third quarter data was released Jan. 30.

See related: Recession-era bankruptcies finally falling from consumers’ credit reports, Americans’ average FICO score hits all-time highMore infographics

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