Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Are Card Companies Reverse Robin Hoods?

The New York Times is running a series on various forms of payment cards, and a re-occurring theme appears to be whether card companies effectively rob the poor to reward the rich. Are they Reverse Robin Hoods. Last Friday, Floyd Norris's High & Low Finance column claimed that low income consumers actually pay more than the affluent. He reached this conclusion by reasoning that merchants charge everyone the same price, but that those who carry reward credit and debit cards get a rebate from their card companies. The less affluent who pay in cash thus effectively pay more. I have argued elsewhere that Norris's analysis is too simple and may well be wrong. On today's front page, however, Times reporter Andrew Martin has a story entitled "Prepaid, but Not Prepared for Debit Car Fees" that shows that the situation for the poor may be even worse. This piece argues that pre-paid debit cards -- used by many low income people who lack bank accounts -- charge outrageous fees. These cards are a relatively new product not addressed in the recent credit card legislation or bills addressing traditional debit cards linked to checking accounts. One has to wonder why a pre-paid product should trigger high fees given that the issuer is bearing no credit risk or the administrative costs of billing the cardholder.

These articles, of course, raise more questions than they answer. Is it really true that merchants could lower their prices if they stopped accepting credit cards? If so, why don't we see more merchants doing it. Wouldn't the lower prices they could charge give them a competitive advantage? If not, what is it about the payment card market that seems immune to many forms of competition? For example, why would low income consumers waste money on a pre-paid debit card when they could open a bank account with lower fees? Banks seem to be responding to threatened debit card legislation, and American Express has taken a competitive stance on gift card fees, apparently spurred by recent credit card legislation. Shouldn't market pressures produce competition without actual or threatened legislation? In future posts, I'll try to explore some of these questions and consider ways in which the law might help advance consumer interests.

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