Rethinking the FICO Score

June 21st, 2018

FICO-6-20-18.pngFor decades, pre-dating many banking careers today, the tried and true method to evaluate credit applications from individual consumers was their FICO score. More than 10 billion credit scores were purchased in 2013 alone, a clear indicator of how important they are to lenders. But is it time for the banking industry to reconsider its use of this metric?

The FICO score, produced by Fair Isaac Corp. using information from the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, TransUnion and Experian—has been considered the gold standard for evaluating consumer credit worthiness. It focuses squarely on the concentration of credit, payment history and the timeliness of those payments. FICO scores have generally proven to be a reliable indicator for banks and other lenders, but in an age operating at light speed, in which many purchases can be made in seconds, a score that can fluctuate in a matter of days might be heading toward obsolescence.

Some believe a person’s credit score should be considered only in parity with other, more current indicators of consumer behavior. A study released in April by the National Bureau of Economic Research says even whether people choose an Apple or Samsung phone “is equivalent to the difference in default rates between a median FICO score and the 80th percentile of the FICO score.”

Consider the following example. A consumer pays off an auto loan, resulting in a reduction in their FICO score. This is largely due to the reduced amount of credit extended. That reduced score could become a deciding factor if the customer has applied for, but not yet closed, a mortgage 60 or so days before paying off the vehicle and could affect the interest rate of the applicant.

That leaves a bitter taste for anyone with average or above average credit who has demonstrated financial responsibility and, it could be reasonably argued, would be a much better candidate for credit extension than someone with the same score who doesn’t give two flips about the regular ebbs and flows in their credit.

For all its inherent benefits to the industry, the traditional credit score isn’t perfect. Banks could be using their own troves of customer data to evaluate their credit applications more accurately, more fairly or more often. This could be a boon for institutions hoping to grow their deposit base or enhance their loan portfolios. Some regulators have indicated their attention to this approach as well. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.’s Winter 2017 Supervisory Insights suggests data could be a helpful indicator of risk and encouraged member institutions to be more “forward-thinking” in their credit risk management.

“As new risks emerge, an effective credit [management information system] program is sufficiently flexible to expand or develop new reporting to assess the effect those risks may have on the institution’s operations,” the agency said.

That suggests the FICO score banks are currently using might not tell the full story about how responsible credit applicants might be.

"My personal opinion is that among most people, if you have someone who thinks about [their digital footprint and credit], you're already talking about people who are financially quite sophisticated," Tobias Berg, the lead author of the NBER study and an associate professor at Frankfurt School of Finance & Management, told Wired Magazine recently. The study examined a number of data points that go far beyond what is incorporated in a FICO score.

That certainly has value for banks. The data they already collect about their customers could be used to determine credit worthiness, but there’s a counter argument to be made. Digital footprints are much easier to manipulate more quickly over time by changing usernames, search history, devices and the like. Using an Android over a more expensive iPhone could be a negative in the study’s findings, for example, which might not reflect the customer’s true credit profile.

But FICO scores are not reviewed as regularly as they could be, and a swing of a couple dozen points from one moment to another can significantly sway some credit applications.

For now, fully abandoning the FICO score isn’t a likely or manageable option for banks, nor one that’s favored by regulators, but the inclusion of digital data in credit applications is something that could be adapted and be beneficial to both the bank and customers eager to expand that relationship with their institution.

jlowary

Jake Lowary is the managing editor for Bank Director. He regularly writes for Bank Director magazine and BankDirector.com.