WASHINGTON–(BUSINESS WIRE)–The National Retail Federation today warned Congress that credit card companies are in an “arms race” to increase the $48 billion in “swipe” fees paid by merchants and their customers each year, and urged passage of legislation that would put rules governing the fees under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission.
“There is an arms race to create cards with higher fees and more bells and whistles,” NRF Senior Vice President and General Counsel Mallory Duncan said. “The market checks that would normally exist to curb this escalation in fees are diminished because the card companies know that every merchant is required to take these expensive new cards or lose their ability to accept any cards. The Welch-Shuster bill would allow the most expensive cards to be refused, and while we expect that few merchants would actually refuse cards if this were passed, it would make the card companies think before they reflexively introduce cards with higher fees.”
“Most consumers don’t know it, but every time they swipe a rewards card with its miles and concierge services, they are driving up the price of everything they buy even higher,” Duncan said. “This particularly hurts less-privileged Americans who don’t have rewards cards or can’t get cards at all because Visa and MasterCard rules effectively require that everyone pay the credit card price even if they are paying with cash, check, debit card or even food stamps.”
“There is no regulator that reviews whether credit card company rules are unfair, deceptive or anticompetitive,” Duncan said. “This legislation would deal with this absence of oversight by directing the Federal Trade Commission to review card company rules and prohibit practices that meet that description. That is the minimum level of protection that this market needs to begin to function properly.”
Duncan testified before the House Financial Services Committee today during a hearing on H.R. 2382, the Credit Card Interchange Act of 2009, sponsored by Representative Peter Welch, D-Vt., and co-sponsored by Representative Bill Shuster, R-Pa. The bill would require credit card companies to disclose interchange rates, terms and conditions, and give the Federal Trade Commission authority to review interchange and prohibit any practices that violate consumer protection or anti-competition laws. Merchants would be allowed to give cash discounts and set minimum credit card purchase amounts, and could choose which credit cards to accept.
Interchange is a fee averaging 2 percent that Visa and MasterCard banks charge merchants each time one of their credit cards is swiped to pay for a purchase. But Duncan explained to the committee that the rate can range from as low as about 1.5 percent for an ordinary card to 3 percent or more for “gold” and “platinum” cards that offer rewards like travel miles or concierge services. In recent years, card companies have created an escalating series of rewards cards – each carrying more rewards but also higher fees – and “upgraded” millions of consumers. The higher-fee cards can’t be turned down by merchants because of Visa and MasterCard’s “Honor All Cards” rule. The practice, along with marketing that has pushed the use of plastic and introduced cards into new areas like taxis, has helped triple interchange revenue from the $16 billion collected when NRF began tracking the fees in 2001 to the $48 billion collected last year.
Visa and MasterCard rules effectively force merchants to pass the fees on to consumers by requiring them to be included in the advertised price of merchandise and making cash discounts difficult. The result is that the average household paid an estimated $427 in higher prices last year, up from $159 in 2001.
Merchants have long sought to offer cash discounts, but Duncan said an amendment to this spring’s credit card reform bill that would have blocked credit card companies from interfering with that ability was met with “howls of protest’ from the card industry and was not included in the final measure.
The National Retail Federation is the world’s largest retail trade association, with membership that comprises all retail formats and channels of distribution including department, specialty, discount, catalog, Internet, independent stores, chain restaurants, drug stores and grocery stores as well as the industry’s key trading partners of retail goods and services. NRF represents an industry with more than 1.6 million U.S. retail establishments, more than 24 million employees – about one in five American workers – and 2008 sales of $4.6 trillion. As the industry umbrella group, NRF also represents more than 100 state, national and international retail associations. www.nrf.com.