I am very pleased to join the Commercial Law Blog as a guest, blogging about credit card payments. Before discussing the economic effects of current fee structures and how card pricing might be improved, this post lays some groundwork, suggesting that these fees are best understood as the portion of the merchant discount fee that a credit card system uses to support card issuing. Viewed in this way, all credit card systems in the United States charge the economic equivalent of interchange fees.
Back in the early days of credit cards, virtually all banks in the associations both issued cards and signed merchants to accept them, a function known as merchant acquiring. The systems then required that the entire merchant fee go to the issuing bank. Over time, this fee structure, channeling all revenue to the issuer, did not provide sufficient incentives to add merchants to the network. To remedy the problem, the two bank associations that became Visa and MasterCard adopted a system-wide formula for dividing the merchant fees between issuers and acquirers.
Functionally, acquirers paid merchants a discounted price for credit card paper and then sold that paper to the card-issuing bank at a somewhat lower discount. The total merchant fee came to be called the “merchant discount” and the portion passed on to the card-issuing bank was labeled the “interchange reimbursement fee.” The amount retained by the acquirer never got a formal name, but might have been called the short-end-of-the-stick fee. From early on, interchange raised antitrust concern because it enabled card-issuing banks to avoid competition on the fees that they effectively charged to merchants. Nevertheless, it has withstood legal challenge for more than three decades.
Over the years, the interchange fee has evolved. Although Visa’s and MasterCard’s fees differ in some ways, they have both followed a similar path. Initially, each charged a single fee to all merchants. In the 1980s, the associations developed separate fees for paper and electronic transactions. The 1990s brought different fees for certain merchant types, as the systems sought to bring in lower margin retailers such as supermarkets. They also added a separate fee for situations in which the magnetic stripe could not be swiped, reflecting perceived fraud risks. Today, interchange fee schedules are a complex array of charges that vary depending upon the type of merchant and its card sales volume, the type of transaction, and the type of card used. The most significant factor may now be what one might term the incremental reward fee, a higher interchange fee that applies when a customer uses a card that rebates cash, awards airline miles, or provides some other benefit for using the card. In addition, as technology has improved and merchant acquiring has become more competitive, acquirers have reduced their margins at the same time that the systems have increased interchange fees. As a result, the percentage of the merchant discount paid to issuers has increased.
Because the phrase interchange fee was created by the bank-card associations, and antitrust challenges -- including the on-going merchant litigation -- principally attack the lack of competition among Visa and MasterCard issuers, it is often assumed that the economic implications of interchange are limited to the bank card associations. But that isn’t true. Although American Express and Discover do not have a formal interchange fee, they have the functional equivalent: A merchant fee that exceeds the marginal cost of providing the retailer with card-acceptance services plus normal profit.
The four-party (issuer/cardholder & acquirer/merchant) nature of a Visa or MasterCard transaction makes this economic equivalence in fee structure apparent. Visa/MasterCard acquirers now operate profitably on about one quarter of the merchant discount that they take from retailers, passing the remaining three quarters to card issuers. Three-party systems (joint issuer-acquirer/cardholder/merchant), such as American Express and Discover, charge merchant fees that exceed substantially the revenue that Visa and MasterCard acquirers retain. Surely, the three-party systems, like Visa and MasterCard banks, use this excess merchant revenue to stimulate card use. For example, American Express now uses some of its merchant revenue to pay banks to issue AmEx cards. Although the percentage of the merchant fee used to support card issuing varies across systems, in all cases more than half of what retailers pay probably supports card issuing. Next time, I will blog about the economic effects of generating revenue from merchants that is used to stimulate card use.