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Whether consumers are doing so voluntarily or not, new credit card issues are down a whopping 54% at the end of 2009 compared to the end of 2007. The back story shows, however, that card issuers are getting decidedly picky about approving new credit cards in a sour economy.

Equifax (Stock Symbol: EFX) reports that new credit card issues slid from 64 million in November 2007, to only 29 million in November 2009. Credit levels are also down across the board: Total available credit to U.S. card consumers in November 2007 stood at $26.1 billion according to Equifax. By November 2009, total available new card credit had plummeted to $11.1 billion.

That’s the case even for card carriers with stellar credit. Equifax reports that a credit card consumer with a credit score of 760 could expect a credit limit of about $8,000 back in late 2007. Two years later, that same consumer, with the same credit score, could only expect about $4,500 in available credit. Down the line a bit, a credit card customer with a credit score of 660 has seen credit limits slide from $4,000 in 2007 to a relatively paltry $2,500 today, Equifax reports.

Call it tough love or an unavoidable trend, but the sheer impact of reduced credit card availability, plus the propensity of American consumers to serve up a slice of their own tough love and cut back on plastic on their own, is changing the credit card landscape. Equifax also reports that U.S. consumers have cut their card debt by 7.3% in the period between November 2007 and November 2009.

What does all this mean for the U.S. consumer? It might not be good news, and it also might not keep financial institutions from picking consumers’ pockets one way or another. For example, banks that issue credit cards may see reduced revenue from declining card usage, but they’re making it up in other areas — specifically by raising credit card fees and interest rates to compensate. According to a recent CBS News poll, roughly 40% of borrowers say their card rates have increased in recent months. CBS pegs the average card rate at the end of 2008 at 11.5%. Today that average rate is 13.5%.

In an interview with CBS, Equifax spokesperson Dann Adams sums up the current credit card landscape aptly. "So what we've seen is a 43% drop in the number of new account openings for credit cards over the past 12 months," Adams said. "Frankly, we're seeing some unbelievable trends that we haven't seen before.”

It’s early, but that could be the underestimation of the year — at least as far as credit card trends go.

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