As part of last year's $7.9 billion preliminary settlement agreement in the class action against Visa and MasterCard, the card networks enacted a rule change allowing merchants to surcharge customers up to 4%. Effective Jan. 27, 2013, the optional surcharge is permitted on credit card transactions in an effort to defuse merchant allegations that the card brands were violating the Sherman Antitrust Act by unlawfully fixing interchange fees and rules.
The interchange fee structure of a four-party payment system is predicated on William F. Baxter's seminal piece from the 1983 Journal of Law and Economics. In this study, Baxter laid out the elements and cost structures for each of the participants in a four-party payment transaction – cardholder, issuer, acquirer, and merchant. Essentially stating that cost flowed principally to the issuer despite interest rates and annual card fees, Baxter economically justified the merchant (or acquiring) fee that would flow back to issuers now known as the IRF, issuer reimbursement fee.
Nearly 40% of Visa and MasterCard merchants are located in the 10 states that ban surcharging including California, New York, Florida, Texas and Massachusetts. Despite this and the proposed surcharging bans recently introduced in more than seven other state legislatures, it is easy to understand why some might see this settlement as a triumphant leveling of the competitive playing field.
"The biggest winners from the settlement are ordinary consumers," according to Todd Zywicki of George Mason University’s Mercatus Center. "Although some of the settlement's terms are potentially prone to abuse by retailers, most notably their new right to impose surcharges on those who use credit cards, it does affirm the core principle that interchange fees should be set by free markets and consumer choice rather than by judges or politicians."
Seemingly unaware of the historical reasons for creating the no-surcharge rule in the first place, Zywicki inverts the issue. Consumers are not the winners as the fee was always embedded into pricing and unfortunately this settlement does nothing to affirm free-market principles. Mandating no surcharges for the merchant participants of their early fledgling networks allowed the card brands to make them an all-or-nothing offer to entice novice cardholders. Had surcharging been permitted from the beginning, it would have been difficult to persuade cardholders, and therefore merchants, because consumers would be incentivized to stick with cash and check payments.
It's more likely that the card brands didn't want to permit merchants to offer discounts for cash transactions. Are they preventing card surcharges or are they preventing cash discounts? Is the glass half-full or is it half-empty? Maybe a “surcharge” is more palatable for consumers now if it is described as a discount for cash.
Sometime during the 1990s, when critical mass was reached and saturation occurred in the credit card payment networks, the tables were turned. Merchants no longer had to be persuaded to accept credit cards as a form of payment. At least in the U.S. and other developed payment markets, merchants realized the benefits of catering to consumer preference for cards and they didn't want to suffer by not offering that choice. The card brands’ acceptance strategy had come full circle, but the no-surcharging rule had not caught up.
With the all-or-nothing choice of "accept all payments at the same price or no card processing at all," once the "nothing" choice started to look relatively attractive, the card payment networks would be forced to open up. That's what alternative payment types such as Bitcoin start to permit. The card-branded networks would begin to see a disadvantage in prohibiting surcharging because all alternative forms of payment, including cash, must cross-subsidize the cards. This allows a non-card-accepting merchant to maintain a significant price advantage over a card-accepting competitor.
So market forces arguably would have eventually pushed Visa and MasterCard to permit surcharges. But the settlement, induced by class action litigation, is worse than superfluous. It is an unwarranted and unjustified encroachment into the practices of a private payment company. Just think of the lost capital and lost productivity of a seven-year, multi-attorney billing festival. Who do you think pays for that? Furthermore, this bit of central planning via the judicial system will remove the competitive advantage that alternative payment-only merchants like Bitcoin Store have now by forcibly removing the cross-subsidization that other merchants would have had to follow in accepting bitcoin or alternatives. If the natural market penalty for cross-subsidization is removed, then alternative payment-only merchants must begin to accept all payment types or lose business.
In a free market, payment networks would compete under their own network rules, not the government's or regulators’ rules. Sadly, the perceived pricing power referred to in the antitrust case stems less from alleged collusion among Visa and MasterCard’s member banks than from the multitude of state-granted privileges they enjoy that disadvantage new entrants (such as extraordinary bailouts for favored institutions, the notion of too-big-to-fail, generous deposit insurance, etc.).
The National Association of Convenience Stores, one of the plaintiffs in the case, rejected the proposed settlement for not going far enough, saying that the settlement failed "to introduce competition and transparency into a clearly broken market." While the merchant lobbyist’s reasons for believing this may not adhere to free market principles, it accidentally happens to be the correct legal and economic posture in this case because the settlement is anticompetitive. The answer, however, is not to coerce transparency and break the market even further.
Free market competition occurs at the macro payment system level – not within a given branded system by forcibly tinkering with the internal fees and surcharges and then declaring a win for consumers. No one is coerced into using a Visa or MasterCard product and merchants are not coerced into accepting plastic payments.
The problem of a payments oligopoly would solve itself because new market entrants would discover ways to bypass the entrenched networks entirely.
Jon Matonis is an e-money researcher and crypto economist focused on expanding the circulation of nonpolitical digital currencies. His career has included senior posts at Sumitomo Bank, Visa, VeriSign, and Hushmail. Currently, he serves on the board of the Bitcoin Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.