Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Because we really needed another Byzantine credit scoring system

I'd been out of the loop. "No post on the new VantageScore yet?" my sister asked. Er, VantageWTF? Thank god for Google News.

Apparently the Credit Data Triumvirate -- Experian, TransUnion and Equifax -- banded together to unveil VantageScore yesterday, a new credit-scoring model to compete with FICO. VantageScores will range from 501-990 (higher is better), versus the 300-850 scale FICO uses.

What else is different? No one can tell. The Triumvirate is being even less forthcoming than FICO creator Fair Isaac about how their scores are calculated. The promotional propaganda says VantageScore was created "to address the market need for a common sense approach to credit scoring." Like hell. VantageScore was created to address the Triumvirate's crankiness about all the money Fair Isaac collects for holding the keys to the FICO kingdom.

A Fair Isaac spokesman told the LA Times that the Triumvirate "have all had their own credit scores that they have tried to sell against us, and they've been wildly unsuccessful. This is them trying to take another crack at our fortress." Investors suspect it will be a successful crack. Fair Isaac's stock dropped 7 percent yesterday.

So what does this mean for consumers? In the short term, not much. FICO is entrenched in the credit-granting process. The Triumvirate plans to market VantageScore to mortgage firms, credit-card companies and other lenders, and they'll need to individually persuade FICO users to switch. That certainly won't happen swiftly. If VantageScore does catch on, it's likely to exist in parallel with FICO for a long while, with lenders scrutinizing any cases that kick up wildly different results from the two models. VantageScore's backers claim their algorithms (the details of which I have not seen any public comment about) will better predict the credit habits of "thin-file consumers," those with a scant paper trail (like young adults). It's possible they've built a better mousetrap, but the idea of one black-box credit scoring model replacing another black-box model does not fill my consumerist heart with joy.

Consumers won't be able to get their hands on their VantageScores for at least another few weeks, says the Washington Post.

I'm curious if consumers will be required to pay for access to their scores, as they are with FICO. I just rang the Equifax media contact listed for VantageScore queries to ask; I'll report back when my call gets returned.