Will Congress Take Another Swipe at Credit Cards?

When Australia capped merchant fees, consumers ended up footing the bill.

by Todd J. Zywicki
The Wall Street Journal
January 5, 2010

Fresh off of its enactment this summer of new regulations on consumer credit card terms, some in Congress want to go further—to impose a national usury ceiling on credit card interest rates and limits on interchange fees (the price that credit card issuers charge to merchants that accept their cards). That caps on interest rates harm consumers is well understood. But price controls on interchange fees would also result in consumers paying more and getting less.

The “interchange fee” (sometimes called the “swipe fee”) is an element of the price a merchant pays when a consumer uses a credit card for a purchase. Interchange partially compensates the cardholder’s bank for the cost and risk of offering payment cards to consumers. This includes clearing costs, billing and collection, fraud recovery, customer service, credit losses, and the resolution of any disputes that might arise from the transaction.

Credit cards generate three basic revenue streams: finance charges, merchant fees, and behavior-based fees such as penalties for late payment. Because annual fees have largely disappeared on standard credit cards, interchange is generally the only compensation issuers receive for the billions of dollars of credit they make available to consumers who pay their balance off every month. Credit unions and community banks, which cater to lower-risk customers who are less prone to revolve balances and pay penalty fees, rely especially heavily on interchange revenues.

Merchants pay, on average, less than 2% of the transaction amount in interchange fees. In exchange, merchants are relieved of the cost and risk associated with running their own in-house credit operations. And they benefit because consumers can make purchases even when they don’t have enough cash in their wallets. This deal is voluntarily assumed by merchants who agree to accept payment cards because the benefits exceed these costs.

The article continues at WSJ.

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