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July 23, 2012

The debate on credit card surcharges

Late Friday the 13th, Visa and MasterCard announced that they, along with several major issuers, reached a $7.25 billion class-action settlement with U.S. merchants. In addition to being party to the largest monetary antitrust settlement in U.S. history, the networks agreed to permit retailers to impose a surcharge on credit transactions subject to a cap and a level playing field with other general purpose card competitors. Previously, the no-surcharge rule (NSR) had been a staple for both MasterCard and Visa, ultimately prohibiting merchants from charging consumers more to pay with credit cards. Merchants claim that because of the NSR, all consumers, regardless of their payment method, incurred higher costs. Now, in theory, merchants should be able to lower their prices and pass along the costs of a credit card transaction only to those consumers paying with a credit card.

Theory versus practice
However, in the payment card market, theory and practice can differ. Look no further than the Durbin Amendment. In theory, Congress intended for this legislation to benefit consumers, assuming that merchants would pass along their savings through lower prices. However, the debate continues whether merchants who received interchange relief—some actually experienced increased rates and are in fact passing along these costs to consumers—are really passing on the savings.

Should the settlement be finalized, I believe we will see another debate about whether the consumer actually benefits, as with the Durbin Amendment. Will many merchants actually choose to impose a surcharge on credit-card-paying consumers? Will the surcharging merchants actually drop prices from their current levels or simply add a surcharge on top of existing prices? Will networks lower the effective interchange rates thus making it less costly for consumers to use credit cards should merchants choose to actually surcharge?

Will credit card surcharging take place in the United States?
Again, we have to look at theory versus practice. In theory, the surcharging provision seems like a win for merchants, but in practice, will the surcharge provision have any impact at the point of sale? And what will prevent surcharging from being put into widespread practice in the United States?

For starters, 10 states with 40 percent of the U.S. population—including California, Florida, New York, and Texas—currently prohibit retailers from charging customers a fee for using a credit card. Keeping the consumer in mind, remember the backlash that one bank experienced when it proposed a new debit card fee? Will any merchant that attempts to implement a surcharge—actual implementation of a surcharge with various types of cards and payment environments is worthy of an entire discussion itself—face similar scrutiny?

I also wonder: if a merchant chooses to charge consumers a fee for using a credit card, would the fee and the merchant then fall under the authority of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? The surcharging debate around this potential settlement and ultimate outcome will no doubt be interesting moving forward.

Douglas A. KingBy Douglas A. King, payments risk expert in the Retail Payments Risk Forum at the Atlanta Fed

July 23, 2012 in card networks , cards , regulators | Permalink


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