Why the EU is planning to take away your Visa and MasterCard reward cards

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This is a guest post, written by Andrew Seftel (although the sensationalist headline is mine!) to whom I am grateful.  You may recognise his name from the comments pages of Head for Points.  His background makes him the ideal person to explain why the potentially dull subject of credit card interchange fees will lead to big changes in how you earn your miles over the next few years.  Over to Andrew …. 

There’s a change coming through the credit card industry that will make it harder to earn miles using cards: card issuers will get less revenue from each purchase you make. This is what funds the rewards you earn, which means that it’ll be harder to earn using cards.

Despite the size of this change, there has been very little discussion about it in the usual places (although some of HFP’s more City-minded readers might have spotted an article on this very topic on the front page of the FT two weeks ago). Here’s a quick briefing on what’s happening.

Credit cards

A primer on interchange

Every time you make a purchase on a debit or credit card, the merchant is charged a cut of the transaction. Some of this will be a charge from the merchant’s bank, the rest will be an ‘interchange’ fee of about 0.7-1.2%, set by Visa or MasterCard that is mostly paid to the card issuer. This payment helps to cover the costs of issuing a card (e.g. physical cards, statements, fraud) and is the reason why credit card companies are happy to have you even if you don’t pay any interest or fees. Crucially for HFP readers, card issuers realised that they could give some of this cut back to consumers, for example, as cashback or points. This has led to the situation that we currently enjoy: being able to earn large amounts of cash, miles and points by using the right credit cards.

What’s changing?

For almost as long as this arrangement has been in place, merchants have hated it! They see it as an unnecessary tax on their revenues, dictated to them by an oligopoly of card networks. Various entities have spent the past couple decades in courtrooms and regulatory commissions battling Visa and MasterCard (although not American Express) and their fees. This slow and complicated tango of proposals and appeals looks finally to be drawing to a conclusion. In the UK, it looks like card interchange will be capped at 0.3%. Regulators will be hoping that the savings from these reduced fees will be passed onto consumers.

What does this mean for me?

  • Card issuers have been anticipating these changes for a while. As a result, new reward card products have become less lucrative over the past few years. Expect that Visa / MasterCard offerings will continue to become less numerous and less generous.
  • Existing cards should be unaffected for the time being, but at some point the issuer will start losing money on every purchase and consider devaluing on-going earnings. Think carefully about closing good card accounts (e.g. BMI cards). You probably won’t be able to get an equivalent replacement.
  • The HFP demographic (who I presume generally pays off their cards in full every month) will become much less profitable for card issuers. In addition to lower rewards rates, sign-up bonuses will probably become less generous and we may also see annual fees becoming more commonplace. Alternatively, more strings may be attached, such as having a particular current account to be eligible for a card.
  • Commercial cards look safe for the time being. Cards targeted at small businesses may be a bright spot for the self-employed.

But I mostly spend on Amex anyway!

If you’ve given rewards cards even the most cursory glance, you’ll have seen that cards on the American Express network offer the best rewards. This is because merchants pay a higher fee to accept the card, giving them more margin to share with the cardholder. You might therefore think that this isn’t such a big deal, but you’re not completely safe:

  • Not everywhere takes Amex, so you’ll be getting less back at those places
  • Only a few companies issue Amex cards, so having other issuers with good offers gives you more introductory bonuses to exploit
  • From a merchant’s point of view, these changes will make Amex even more expensive to accept (relative to Mastercard and Visa), so Amex acceptance might get worse
  • Amex might unilaterally reduce fees to bolster acceptance or avert regulatory action, leading to less rich reward programmes
  • Amex cards issued by other companies (e.g. MBNA, Lloyds) are affected by the cap, so they will probably have their rewards cut at some point. This will likely affect the competitiveness of rewards offers in the long-term.

Enjoy it while it lasts

The idea of a ‘game changing’ shift in the loyalty rewards landscape is one that is bandied about all too often. This one is indeed bigger than a closing loophole or a program devaluation. It’s not all bad news though: American Express and commercial cards probably aren’t going to be directly affected.

Taking the big-picture view, cutting interchange may be a generally good thing if these savings are passed onto consumers, rather than being retained by merchants or their banks (although HFP readers will probably still be worse off). Nevertheless, as long as there remain sweet spots and loopholes somewhere, there will still be lucrative opportunities to travel the world and stay in incredible places.

Andrew Seftel works as an analyst within the credit card industry. You can contact him on Twitter @andrewseftel
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  1. Farringdon says:

    Great post! Can you comment on the recent experience on the US with reforms on interchange fees and whether there is any read across to the UK.

    • Andrew (@andrewseftel) says:

      I’m not too familiar with what’s going on in the US, but I believe that recent changes were focused on debit cards. As far as I know, US issuers still get something like 1-3% per credit card transaction, much more than in the UK (which is why their cards are so much more generous).

  2. Steve says:

    Right, there’s only one thing for it then – lets cane those 3V cards while we still can !!

  3. Andrew – I’ve briefly read a few parts of that linked FAQ…and I’m rather more confused now…

    EU FAQ says
    “around 60% of the EU population does not possess a credit card”
    Which leads me to wonder, what the issue is – as mentioned by Sven, there doesn’t appear to be a monopoly position here – merchants can choose which cards to accept.

    The other thing, I don’t get is why does there need to be a common policy across all European states? It’s clear from the documents that different states have cultural attitudes, economic situations and banks which have different retail – finance strategies (e.g. in some states it’s common to charge a current account fee, in others it’s uncommon).
    Different currencies across Europe will also mean card providers won’t be taken up by residents from other member states – so what will all this actually achieve?

    • callum says:

      Because that’s the whole point of the EU existing – making a common market. Same reason why mobile roaming charges are capped and are falling every year (in the near future I can see them being abolished full stop within the EU).

      Common policies don’t stop the different cultures you mentioned anyway – some banks in the UK have current account fees, that doesn’t remotely affect the free accounts. There is no reason why they can co-exist within a country but can’t within the EU.

    • James says:

      The EU is meant to have only one currency… and apart from the GBP and SEK, none of the others matter, are effectively the euro, or are basket cases anyway.

  4. Volker says:

    Many years ago I had a credit card where I had to pay some interest on EVERY purchase amount – from the transaction date until I made a payment to my card account to clear my “debt”. I didn’t mind as to me that was just the obvious difference between a credit card and a debit card.
    Maybe this model will become more popular in the future and we can continue our daily hunt for generous rewards and miles.

    • James says:

      Really? So you would actually spend extra money to buy miles with every transaction? A credit card is – up to 56 days interest free, purchase protection and sometimes insurance. This is different from paying a fixed percentage fee to the merchant when you have a spending target to meet or need some miles for a specific purpose.

      • Andrew (@andrewseftel) says:

        I don’t see why you couldn’t pay off new transactions mid-statement. You’d still owe a small amount of interest, but the value of the miles would outweigh it, especially if intro bonuses stick around.

  5. Clive J says:

    Good article thanks. It goes some way to explaining why the sign-up bonuses for Amex are generally better. It’s difficult to see how Amex could continue with an even greater disparity in these fees. Even if they don’t fall under similar legislation I imagine they would need to voluntarily reduce their fees if the Visa/MC ones are capped.

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