When the travel hacking blogosphere erupted in recent weeks with "rumors" that Chase might, maybe, eventually end the ability to combine points between fixed-value Ultimate Rewards accounts and flexible Ultimate Rewards accounts, I met the rumors with a yawn, for two reasons:
- such a change would smash the value of their credit card portfolio and cause many heavy spenders to move their purchases to more valuable rewards programs, which you'd think Chase would want to avoid, or at least avoid admitting to their shareholders;
- and as a travel hacker, there's no use whining about how great things used to be, how terrible they are now, and how much worse they're going to be in the future.
The second point is still true, but over the weekend I had the chance to chat with a couple fellow travel hackers while up in Boston and managed to talk myself around to Chase's logic in ending points pooling, should they ever choose to do so.
Chase Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Cash are bad cashback cards
I love my Freedoms, with which I max out the bonus categories 3-4 quarters each year, and I love my Freedom Unlimited, which gets a lot of my unbonused spend, but we need to clearly understand that they are lousy cashback cards.
The golden standard for a cashback credit card is 2% cashback on all purchases, with no annual fee. There are several such cards; the two I happen to carry are the Citi Double Cash and Fidelity Rewards cards, but there are others.
Note, however, that 2% cashback credit cards with no annual fee are invariably somewhat cumbersome: the Double Cash pays out 1% on purchases and 1% on payments. Fidelity Rewards have to be redeemed into Fidelity accounts, and you have to meet payout minimums and deal with their somewhat primitive rewards site. Both cards charge foreign transaction fees, as well.
In other words, 2% is the ceiling on the value banks are willing to offer their customers in cashback on purchases made with a no-annual-fee card, and even then, they do so only under duress and in the expectation they'll earn at least some of that value back in interest charges and ancillary fees.
Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Cash cards fall far short of that ceiling. Instead of offering 2% cashback, Freedom and Ink Cash cards earn just 1% cashback. Instead of 2% cashback, Freedom Unlimited cards earn just 1.5% cashback. The gimmick — and let's be clear: it's a gimmick — is that Freedom and Ink Cash cards earn bonus points in certain categories, with the idea that a person who carries the card to make bonused purchases will also reach for it when making unbonused purchases, giving up a whole 1% cashback on those unbonused transactions.
With the launch of the Freedom Unlimited offer for 3% cashback the first year, we see something similar: if you can convince someone to use their Freedom Unlimited for all purchases the first year, when it's a good deal, then maybe they'll keep using it in later years, earning just 1.5% cashback and leaving 0.5% cashback for Chase to pocket.
Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus/Bold, and Ink Preferred cards are replacement-level travel cards
All three of Chase's "premium" travel credit cards are middle-of-the-pack offerings for business travelers and other heavy spenders. If you don't manufacture spend, then deciding between the flexible travel rewards cards offered by Chase, American Express, and Citi is just an exercise in optimizing between imperfect airline and hotel chain combinations.
This gives us access to what I think of as one of the most valuable insights of the economics profession: revealed preferences.
Since the Sapphire Preferred and premium Ink cards earn just one flexible Ultimate Rewards point per dollar on unbonused purchases, but the Freedom Unlimited pays 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on unbonused purchases, we know for a fact that Chase values flexible points at least 33% higher than fixed-value points.
That is to say, if Chase has determined that a dollar of unbonused spend is worth, at a maximum, 1.5 cents in rewards, then a dollar spent with the premium cards earns 1 cent in cashback plus 0.5 cents in flexibility (adjusted for the hefty annual fees you have to pay whether you get any value from the cards or not).
This makes pooled points a problem for Chase
If fixed-value Ultimate Rewards points can be freely converted into flexible Ultimate Rewards points, then a dollar spent with the Freedom Unlimited costs Chase not the 1.5 cents they're willing to pay out on unbonused spend, but 2.25 cents: 1.5 cents in cashback plus 0.75 cents in flexibility.
It literally makes no sense that for a single $95 annual fee, someone can earn 2 flexible Ultimate Rewards points using a Sapphire Preferred for their travel and dining purchases and 1.5 flexible Ultimate Rewards points on all other purchases using a Freedom Unlimited. Even if the $95 annual fee covers the cost of making the Sapphire Preferred points flexible, it can't also cover the cost of making the Freedom Unlimited points flexible.
Points that are easy to earn are easy to redeem
Everybody knows my maxim that the least valuable point is the one you don't redeem. But for banks, it's just the opposite: when you redeem a point, they actually have to cut a check, whether it's to the airline or hotel you book a paid reservation with, or the partner you transfer your points to.
That means folks who redeem points confident that they'll be able to easily earn many more are much more expensive to a bank than the folks who, in making sure they only redeem points when they're able to get the "maximum possible value," never redeem their points at all.
So if Chase knows what they're doing, as I suspect they do, they've noticed that folks who are transferring in big balances from Freedom and Freedom Unlimited cards to flexible Ultimate Rewards accounts, and especially super-premium Sapphire Reserve accounts, are much more likely to also redeem their points for expensive partner transfers and paid reservations.
While they may be content with the rates they pay their travel partners, and even the redemption rate on paid travel bookings, Chase may not be content with the speed with which folks build up and redeem their balances. Restricting points pooling thus has the added benefit of slowing down redemption rates and leaving more points orphaned, perhaps permanently, or redeemed for cash.
If this change ever comes down in any form, whether it's restricting household pooling, restricting pooling between personal and business cards (forcing some folks to hold 2 premium cards), or eliminating pooling altogether, there won't be anything you can do about it, besides adapting and shifting your spending to more lucrative opportunities.
But in the meantime, you should certainly be combining all your Ultimate Rewards points into your most valuable account on every statement close.
Not because of any potential devaluation or restriction, but because it's common sense.