Tuesday , October 26, 2021

COMMENTARY: If You Want Consumers to Lose, Network Regulation is a Must

After the current U.S. Congress was sworn in, a predictable chorus of merchants, lobbyists, and lawmakers demanded new interchange price caps and other government mandates to decrease credit card interchange fees for merchants. The tired attacks on credit cards are an easy narrative that focuses almost exclusively on the cost side of the ledger, while completely ignoring the cards’ important role in the economy and the regressive effects of interchange regulation. 

To lawmakers blindly acting on behalf of retailers, regulation is a brilliant idea—regardless of how it affects their constituents. For decades, they have promised these interventions would eventually benefit consumers. But the lessons from the Durbin Amendment in the United States and price cap regulation in Australia is clear. Although some policymakers bemoan the current economic model, arbitrarily “cutting” rates for the sake of cuts completely ignores the economic reality that as billions of dollars move to merchants, billions are lost by consumers. 

For the uninitiated, let’s break down what credit interchange funds: 1) the cost of fraud; 2) more than $40 billion in consumers rewards; 3) the cost of nonpayment by consumers, which is typically 4% of revolving credit; 4) more than $300 billion in credit floats to U.S. consumers; and 5) drastically higher “ticket lift” for merchants. 

Johnson: “To lawmakers blindly acting on behalf of retailers, regulation is a brilliant idea—regardless of how it affects their constituents.”

These are just some of the benefits. If costs were all that mattered, American Express wouldn’t exist. Until recently, it was by far the most expensive U.S. network. Yet, merchants still took AmEx because they knew the average AmEx “swipe” was around $140, far more than Visa and Mastercard. 

Put simply, for a few basis points, interchange functions as a small insurance policy to safeguard retailers from the threat of fraud and nonpayment by consumers. Consider the amount of ink spilled on interchange when no one mentions that the chargeoff rate for issuing banks on bad credit card debt exceeds credit interchange.

Looking abroad, interchange opponents cite Australia, which halved interchange fees nearly 20 years ago, as a glowing example of how to regulate credit cards. In truth, Australia’s regulations have harmed consumers, reduced their options, and forced Australians to pay more for less appealing credit card products. 

First, the cost of a basic credit card is $60 USD in many Australian banks. How many millions of Americans would lose access to credit if the annual cost went from $0 to $60? Can you imagine the consumer outrage? 

In a two-sided market like credit cards, any regulated shift to one side acts a massive tax on the other. For Australians, the new tax fell on cardholders. There, annual fees for standard cards rose by nearly 25%, according to an analysis by global consulting firm CRA International. Fees for rewards cards skyrocketed by as much as 77%.

Many no-fee credit cards were no longer financially viable. As a result, they were pulled from the market, leaving lower income Australians, as well as young people working to establish credit, with few viable options in the credit card market.

Even the benefits that lead many people to sign up for credit cards in the first place have been substantially diluted in Australia because of the reduction of interchange fees. In fact, the value of rewards points fell by approximately 23% after the country cut interchange fees.

Efforts to add interchange price caps would have a similar effect here in the U.S. A 50% cut would amount to a $40 billion to $50 billion wealth transfer from consumers and issuers to merchants. For the 20 million or so financially marginalized Americans, what will their access to credit be when issuers find a $50 billion hole in their balance sheets? 

The average American generates $167 per year in rewards, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Perks like airline miles, hotel points, and cashback rewards would be decimated and would likely be just the province of the rich after regulation. Many middle-class consumers could say goodbye to family vacations booked at almost no cost thanks to credit card rewards.

As the travel industry and retailers fight to bounce back from the impact of the pandemic, slashing consumer rewards and reducing the attractiveness of already-fragile businesses is the last thing lawmakers and regulators in Washington should undertake.

Proposals to follow Australia’s misguided lead in capping interchange may allow retailers to snatch a few extra basis points, but the consequences would be disastrous for consumers. Cards would simply be less valuable and more expensive for Americans, and millions of consumers would lose access to credit. University of Pennsylvania Professor Natasha Sarin estimates debit price caps alone cost consumers $3 billion. How much more would consumers have to pay under Durbin 2.0?

Members of Congress and other leaders should learn from Australia and Durbin 1.0 to avoid making the same mistake twice.

—Drew Johnson is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, Washington, D.C.

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