Sunday, 30 January 2011

How We All Pay For Card Payments

Few people are aware that when you pay using a credit or debit card, your 'issuing' bank charges the retailer's 'acquiring' bank an "interchange fee". The rate is either agreed directly between the banks, or is imposed via a card scheme, like Visa or MasterCard. Nobody outside the banks and card schemes really sees this fee. The retailer receives your money for the purchase price, less a service charge. A little bit of that service charge is kept by the retailer's bank as a payment processing fee, but most is kept by your bank as its interchange fee.

Like any other retail overhead, these charges need to be accounted for in retail pricing. So, even if you aren't paying by card, interchange fees are a significant drag on your personal economy. The European Retail Round Table, a network of large retailers, has found that "the average European household pays €139 per year on interchange fees". And, according to the European Commission, "in the EU, over 23 billion payments, exceeding a value of €1350 billion, are made every year with payment cards." In other words, retailers have no real choice but to accept payments by card.

But who benefits? The ERRT cites a 2006 report found that only 13% of the fees go toward your bank's processing cost, while 44% of interchange fees pay for cards reward programmes - which of course only benefit cardholders. That leaves a healthy profit for issuing banks. In their defence, Visa and MasterCard claim that interchange fees are essential to investment in systems, marketing and anti-fraud efforts. Which is what banks must do themselves, anyway, to meet their own anti-money laundering and prudential requirements. The schemes also suggest that interchange fees may be cost-neutral to retailers if savings on the acceptance of cash and reduced check-out times for card payments are factored in (which has not been accepted in Europe).

Looking at the situation from the consumers' standpoint, non-cardholders get no benefit from card loyalty schemes at all. And even cardholders themselves might prefer the equivalent of interchange fees being spent in ways that directly improve their retail experience.

The card schemes argue that because retailers say they have no choice but to pass on interchange costs to consumers, the measure of whether interchange fees are really too high is whether retailers would actually lower their prices - and they would not. That doesn't hold water. Firstly, all of a retailer's costs are ultimately accounted for in its prices. So it would be wrong of retailers to say that all consumers are not paying for interchange, unless the retailers specifically imposed a specific interchange-related fee only on those paying by card. Secondly, as I commented earlier on Digital Money, the card schemes' assertion rests on the assumption that the only way retailers should reasonably differentiate themselves from each other is in terms of price. So the card schemes would have it that every time a retailer cuts any of type of cost, including interchange fees, the retailer should take the ultimately suicidal step of always reducing prices to the consumer, rather than, say, investing in increased selection, improved customer experience or expansion to achieve economies of scale. That's an unrealistic position in itself, let alone one that would support the assertion that if retailers do not cut prices to consumers on the back of lower interchange fees, they are somehow behaving just as anti-competitively as the card schemes are alleged to be in imposing them. The retail markets are distinct from the market for payment services. Lack of competition in retail markets can be - and is frequently - addressed on its own merits and action taken accordingly.

So it's no surprise that competition regulators have given a lot attention to how interchange fees are set and imposed. The Reserve Bank of Australia has perhaps been the most progressive. It was the first to impose a standard rate for interchange fees in July 2003 and has maintained downward pressure ever since. In December 2007, the European Commission ruled as anti-competitive interchange fees on cross-border MasterCard and Maestro branded debit and consumer credit cards. The EC later accepted certain undertakings to settle proceedings for alleged breach of the ruling. European Commission action in relation to Visa Europe's interchange fees has culminated in a reduction of debit interchange fees. But importantly that decision "does not cover MIFs for consumer credit and deferred debit card transactions which the Commission will continue to investigate. The proposed commitments are also without prejudice to the right of the Commission to initiate or maintain proceedings against Visa Europe's network rules such as the "Honour All Cards Rule", the rules on cross-border acquiring, MIFs for commercial card transactions, and Inter-Regional MIFs."

The battle is also raging in the US, where three bills were put before Congress in 2009 to regulate interchange fees. The Federal Reserve is consulting on proposals to limit debit card fees from July 2011 "one that would base fees on each issuer’s costs, and one that would set a cap of 12 cents per transaction", as explained here by Jean Chatsky, and discussed on Digital Money. Potential implications for bank stocks are discussed here.

Ultimately, however, the outcome of all this depends on which payment services best facilitate the end-to-end activity in which a payment is being made. The winners will not be those who insist on viewing consumers' activities through the lens of their own payment product.

Image from GAO report on interchange.
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