Peter Guidi's Blog

Posts Tagged ‘GAO’

“Reasonable and proportional”, is issuance and the cost of reward programs a part of the “incurred payment processing costs”?

In alternative payment, Bank Tax, credit card, debit card, interchange, loyalty, merchants, payment, Payment card on June 17, 2010 at 9:34 pm

Lost in the debate over interchange fees and the Durbin amendment is a focus on how payment card products reach the consumer. One of the key points of the amendment is to mandate that the interchange fees on selected debit transactions be “reasonable and proportional to the cost incurred in processing the transaction” Merchants have taken the position that as the volume of transactions have increased, the economies of scale and overall effectiveness and efficiencies of the payment processing network have improved, and therefore the cost of transaction processing have gone down. The fact that interchange has gone up during this period is used as evidence that system is corrupt and anti-competitive. This point is heard when Senator Durbin says that government needs to “reasonably regulate this system”.

Missing from the debate on interchange and what constitutes the costs incurred in processing a transaction is consumer acquisition. Consumer acquisition costs are incurred in at least two areas; enrollment (consumer application) and rewards (loyalty programs & retention), to say nothing about overhead, like customer service. This week both Citigroup and TD Bank launched new “Debit Rewards” programs. Citigroup launched a 5% debit card cash back promotion, while the TD Bank program offers 1 point for every $1 dollar spent. In both cases, these reward programs are only available to consumers who use signature rather than PIN debit. As a consumer, which program should I choose? These are two highly competitive businesses, each offering me a product and a service. Each has put their best foot forward and is universally accepted. Both have used a different approach; one uses point’s, one utilizes cash back, and the choice is mine. If the Durbin amendment is successful and retailer acceptance is selective, and interchange fees regulated, would the consumer have these same choices?

Merchants involved with loyalty programs understand the costs associated with advertising and marketing to drive enrollment and fund reward programs. Industry sources report that up to 40% of all interchange dollars paid by merchants are used to support payment card loyalty programs. That means, in 2008, consumers may have earned up to 19 billon dollars in consumer rewards; a cost borne by the merchant, but also a cost to the issuer (bank).

The suggestion is that high fees are a result of no competition in the payment card market. In reality, the high fees are a result of intense competition. It just happens, that the competition is between banks (issuers) fighting for the consumers’ business.

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Orwellian market principals; is legislation regulating interchange fees a harbinger of greater merchant acceptance of government control over industry?

In alternative payment, Bank Tax, credit card, debit card, interchange, loyalty, payment, Payment card on March 10, 2010 at 6:59 pm

Close on the heels of Barney Frank’s decision not to pursue HR 2382, and as the industry plots its next step, merchants might want to consider the words of Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty. The Finance Minister is quoted as saying; “(he) would exercise the new powers (sic. impose card use fees) if the industry failed to comply with a proposed VOLUNTARY code of conduct. Merchants’ should ask themselves if this is the type of government intervention that is appropriate in the United States? Merchants might ask if they are opening the chicken coop to the wolf. If the government can regulate interchange fees, what else could they control? More importantly; who will determine what a “fair price” is and will merchants be pleased with a “regulated result”?  What if the Government chooses to raise fees rather than lower fees?

One way to evaluate this question is to consider how merchants feel about interchange fees in countries with government regulation? I read a blog about one consumer’s experience with credit card fees in New Zealand and Australia. He reports that most merchants specifically asked if he wanted to pay using signature or PIN? One restaurant is reported to have a sign stating “$15 min.” explaining that credit card fees were too high to allow purchases under $15 using a credit card. Imagine that? Even with card fees at 0.55%, merchants reported interchange fees are too high.

The current political environment is ripe for all sorts of government intervention. Government sponsored higher interchange fees are possible, particularly if interchange is seen a source of tax revenue. The merchant community could find that advocating interchange regulation might lend support to adverse government action in areas like Motor Fuels, Tobacco, Labor and Healthcare and other issues where they seek less, not more, government involvement.

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“War on Cash” or “War of Words over Card Fees”; the battle between two industries with very different points of view.

In alternative payment, Bank Tax, credit card, debit card, interchange, loyalty, payment, Payment card on March 5, 2010 at 1:43 pm

The epic battle between the Merchant Payments Coalition and the Electronic Payments Coalition heated up again this week when NACS spokesman Jeff Lenard was quoted in the America Public Media online journal “Marketplace” saying “Welcome to the war on cash,” in response to increasing debit card transaction fees. Adding; “that the credit card companies have to find new revenue sources” as a result of The Credit Card Reform Act, and that “one of those is going to be interchange”.

 Meanwhile the “War of Words over Card Fees” continued as the Electronic Payments Coalition (EPC) reported that Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) has indicated to Pennsylvania banks that he will introduce legislation which will mirror H.R. 3282. The EPC says that the “legislation will potentially shift the cost of accepting credit and debit cards onto consumers”. Frank Pinto, CEO/President of the Pennsylvania Association of Community Bankers goes on to say “When retailers accept cards in their stores, they receive profits, customers, guaranteed payment, and the golden key to e-commerce–and they shouldn’t have their customers pay for this cost of doing business.”

 Rising Signature Debit Transaction Fees are the latest cause for merchant concern. Consumer behavior is changing as debit becomes the preferred “method of payment”. Card Issuers are competing with each other for the consumers business. One result is that the Issuers and Card Associations are promoting the use of Signature Debit over PIN Debit because the signature debit interchange fee is higher than that of PIN debit which funds the reward program. The justification for the different fees is that the financial risks associated with the two types of transactions are different; Signature being more risky than PIN and therefore meriting higher fees. The paradox is that the industry is promoting the use of the riskier transaction assumedly because it is more profitable. The reality is that debit fees are approaching credit card fees, and that the two tiered debit fee is probably going to be phased out in favor of the one higher interchange fee.

 Sun Tzu the historical military strategist is well known to have said “Know your enemy”. Another of his lesser known quotes is “opportunities multiply as they are seized”.

 The merchant community could heed his advice when thinking about payment. The payment industry has noticed the consumer’s preference for debit. As a result the card issuers are offering richer debit rewards programs as they compete for the consumers business. Merchants can expect to see the cost for these consumer transactions to rise as these programs grow in popularity. Merchants must ask themselves, has the time for war arrived and is the “opportunity” competition?

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Market Power or Perfect Competition: The “Apples and Oranges” of the interchange pricing debate.

In alternative payment, credit card, debit card, interchange, payment, Payment card, Uncategorized on November 27, 2009 at 6:38 pm

Market Power gives a firm the ability to employ anti-competitive tactics like predatory pricing without losing customers to competitors. During testimony on H.R. 2382, the Representative of The Merchants Payment Coalition stated that “there is no competitive market for interchange fees – just naked price fixing”. On the other side, the Representative from The Electronic Payments Coalition called interchange an “important element(s) of the successful, competitive banking experience” adding that “interchange reflects a merchant’s fair share of the costs” (sic.) of the system.

Last weeks GAO report found that Merchants’ are in fact paying more to accept credit cards, but also added that “network competition in the credit card market may be contributing to rising interchange rates”.

Two-sided markets exhibit “Network Effects” when two groups of users are attracted to each other, in this case retailers who accept payment and consumers who make payment.  “Cross- Side Network Effects” occur when enough users are attracted to one side that the other side will pay dearly to reach them.  In this case, retailers are the “money side” and they pay to accept cards as a form of payment, while consumers are the “subsidy side” who receive incentives to use the cards as a form of payment. Linking these two groups together is the primary value of the payment platform creating powerful Cross-Side Effects.

Retailers’ accept cards as payment because so many consumers use cards for payment. Competition between card issuing banks to capture consumers, and networks to capture banks is intense as evidenced by the multiple offers for high earning rewards credit and debit products and their users. Retailers ultimately see the cost of this competition reflected in rising interchange fees, particularly the higher rate fees for reward based programs. The question is; does this competition between networks and financial institutions for the consumers’ payment business justify the increasing rates paid by retailers to accept these forms of payment or does it constitute a monopolistic example of a market failure?

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