In a normal recession, banks like the big credit card shops in Wilmington stop trying so hard to lend you money. They shift marketing and customer-service workers over to loan collections, or hire more outside collectors.

In this recession, even debt collectors are having a hard time.

Standard & Poor's Rating Services yesterday cut credit ratings on NCO Group Inc., Horsham, which operates debt-collection and customer-service call centers across Asia and North America, citing "the difficult collections environment."

Also, noted S&P analyst Rian M. Pressman, NCO's former source of acquisition financing - an affiliate of grain processor Cargill Inc. - has cut back its own lending this year.

In his third-quarter report last month, NCO chief executive officer Michael J. Barrist, right, told investors the company is benefiting from increased demand by clients trying to step up collections - but that wasn't enough to offset how it's now harder to get people to pay.

N.Y. pushes pension cut

Faced with the same kind of ballooning pension liabilities that

Mayor Nutter

cites in closing Philadelphia libraries,

New York Gov. David Paterson

wants to make it tougher for new employees to qualify for taxpayer-backed retirement checks.

In a statement Tuesday, Paterson said he wanted to "restore the minimum retirement age from 55 to 62," boost workers' contributions to the retirement fund, and go back to requiring at least 10 years of government service - not just the current five - before they can collect.

Easy money

The National Association of Home Builders says cheaper mortgage money is the cure to what ails America.

Lobbyists for builders called yesterday for a tax credit capped at up to $22,000 for "qualified" people buying homes next year, to be used toward down payments; plus 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 3 percent to 4 percent interest.

Easy mortgage money helped create the current mess, but it's possible builders will get their wish: The Federal Reserve said Tuesday that it would start making consumer and small- business loans next year, if banks don't get back in the market.

Small world

U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey

has recused himself from a Justice Department investigation into

hedge fund manager Bernard L. Madoff's

alleged $50 billion fraud, Bloomberg News reports.

"Mukasey is a 1959 graduate of the Ramaz School, a modern Orthodox Jewish school in New York that invested as much as $6 million in a fund that invested with Madoff," according to Bloomberg. "Mukasey's wife, Susan, was headmistress of Ramaz's Lower School for children in primary grades," and Mukasey's son, Marc, is a lawyer representing one of Madoff's top aides.

Saving too soon

Scott Shafer, business manager of the Lower Merion School District, sent us more data supporting his case that the threatened tripling in school pension subsidies, announced last week, is a made-in-Harrisburg problem.

Last year, he noted, the state charged school districts around $7.13 for every $100 they paid school employees. This year, the rate fell to $4.76, about where it's supposed to stay for the next three years, under the current funding formula. But in 2012-13, the rate is scheduled to jump to $16.40 per $100 - or more if stock prices don't rise sharply.

If they'd just kept the rate around $7.13 - as the Department of Education recommended (but the General Assembly "unfortunately" refused), the increase "could have been avoided," Shafer noted.

Shafer also sent a table of historic school pension contribution rates. These varied from 8 percent to 12 percent in 1961-76, rose above 20 percent by 1986, back down to 15 percent in 1992, below 10 percent in 1997, and nearly to 1 percent in 2002, before rising more recently.

Shafer says this shows Pennsylvanians have been underfunding the pension, compared with past years. But I notice that the other taxpayer-funded pension source - the "employee contribution" that school workers deduct from their paychecks - rose as the direct subsidy fell. Also, school pay has been going up faster than inflation. So the schools' pension payments, in dollars, are rising faster than the contribution rates.

All these are factors in higher pension costs and property taxes.

Contact staff writer Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194 or jdistefano@phillynews.com

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