A settlement involving the top two payments networks over their merchant acceptance policies gives retailers more clout to promote the use of cheaper cards, but an analyst doubts many businesses will change their practices.
"This will be fairly complex to implement at the point of sale," Jason Kupferberg, an analyst at UBS Securities LLC in New York, said Monday. "When all is said and done, there won't be much of an impact to the networks."
Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc. said Monday they had entered agreements over a lawsuit by the U.S. Justice Department and seven states regarding the companies' policies for the acceptance of cards bearing their brands.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, also named as a defendant American Express Co., which does not plan to settle.
In the lawsuit, the Justice Department alleges that the defendants "have suppressed competition with rival networks" by not allowing merchants to offer discounts for using "a network credit card that is less costly."
"Merchants cannot even suggest that their customers use a less costly alternative card by posting a sign stating 'we prefer' another card or by disclosing a card's acceptance fee," the lawsuit says.
Visa said it will allow U.S. merchants to offer discounts and other incentives to encourage consumers to use one card instead of another. The San Francisco payments network said it already allows merchants to offer discounts for cash, check and PIN debit payments.
MasterCard said it also allows merchants to discount for cash or for using other card brands. The settlement is "consistent with the company's long-standing business practices," the company said in press release.
The settlement is "an incremental positive" for Visa and MasterCard because "it puts a legal overhang behind them," Kupferberg said, adding that he doubts changes to their rules will "create a major negative financial impact."
Many merchants likely will not want the hassle of training cashiers to look for rewards cards, which typically carry higher acceptance fees, than plain cards, he said.
"Anything that makes a transaction more complex to complete or increases the amount of time for the transaction to be completed is going to be perceived as negative," Kupferberg said.
Amex is concerned that the lawsuit will give Visa and MasterCard the upper hand because Amex cards in general carry higher acceptance fees, Ed Gilligan, a vice chairman at Amex, said on a conference call Monday. "To suggest that merchants" would steer away from Visa and MasterCard, "which have 10 times as many cards in the market as America Express, is a flawed assumption."
The Justice Department will press its case against Amex, Attorney General Eric Holder said during a press conference Monday.
"We need to ensure that every consumer has access to more choices and lower prices," Holder said in a statement. "That simply will not happen unless and until American Express's restrictive rules are changed."