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The REAL facts about credit card interchange fee capping

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A couple of articles appeared in the UK press over the weekend linked to the decision by Capital One to scrap, completely, the rewards on its cashback cards.  The Daily Mail one is here.  This has led to a number of emails from readers asking what the impact will be on their reward cards.

The honest answer is that I don’t know.  Industry analyst Andrew Seftel wrote a guest article for Head for Points back in July 2013 outlining the discussions that were going on.  The reaction of the card companies in recent months since a final decision was made by the EU implies that the world is not going to end.  Most of what you have read on this topic has been confused because it fails to understand what is actually changing and what is not.

Here are the key facts:

  • The EU is capping the interchange fee (explained below) on credit card transactions at 0.3%.  This is the % of the purchase which the card issuer keeps.
  • Debit card transactions are capped at 0.2%
  • Only Visa and MasterCard are impacted
  • American Express is NOT impacted directly.  Additionally – and this is important for our niche – Amex cards issued by MBNA, Lloyds and Barclays are not impacted until 2019.
  • The exact implementation date will not be known until the regulations are formally approved by the EU Council in the Summer.

The interchange fee is NOT the fee that most shopkeepers pay when they accept a credit card.  That fee is set by the bank they work with and includes terminal rental and various other services, plus an amount to recoup the interchange fee.  There is no obligation for banks to reduce the fees charged to shops at all.

It is worth noting that the new rate of 0.3% compares with a rate of 1.77% charged in the USA.  The current UK interchange rate is around 0.8% – here is an earlier MasterCard rate card although some of these charges have come down recently.

Credit cards

To understand the impact of a substantial cap on interchange fees, you need to understand how the industry works.  A credit card issuer such as MBNA has a number of revenue streams, primarily:

  • Interchange fees
  • Annual card fees
  • Interest payments
  • Fees for late payment (£12 cap)
  • Foreign transaction fees

Against this, you have:

  • Customer acquisition costs
  • Funding costs (shops are paid immediately, you pay your bill 4-6 weeks later – the card issuer has to borrow money to fund its working capital)
  • Servicing costs (call centres, posting statements, processing payments)
  • Bad debt costs
  • Fraud costs
  • Cost of providing rewards
  • ‘Section 75’ recharges from bankrupt retailers

On the face of it, capping interchange fees at 0.3% on credit cards is nonsensical.  For a start, the card company is giving you up to 55 days free credit.  You won’t find many people willing to lend you money for 55 days for a 0.3% return. Even the cost of posting you a statement (lets say £1) becomes uneconomical unless you have spent £333 that month.

The argument for reducing interchange fees (apart from oligopolistic ones) is primarily that rich credit card users are being subsidised by poorer customers who pay cash.  This idea seems to fail on various levels:

  • retailers pay bank fees to deposit cash, which is why cashback is so popular in supermarkets
  • retailers incur other costs to handle cash, eg sending staff out to the bank
  • credit card customers are known to spend more than cash customers because of the psychological impact of not having to hand over real cash (as well as the convenience factor of being able to make a payment if they do not have money on them)
  • accepting credit cards is not actually a legal requirement!

Australia has had a cap on interchange fees for a number of years of 0.5%.  Anecdotal evidence is that this reduced the number of reward credit cards in circulation, increased the average credit card annual fee and increased interest rates.  The EU cap is substantial lower than that, at 0.3%.  When interest rates increase, card companies will not be able to even fund the 55 days of free credit at 0.3%.

Reward credit card have another problem.  Their users are generally professionals who clear their balance every month.  With no interest fees and no late payment fees, the only attraction of reward cards to card companies is that their holders charge substantially more than average per month.

Customers like us (who don’t pay interest) are NOT the core customer of the credit card industry because we do not pay interest – and that is where the big money is made.  However, we are incremental business and – with the back office infrastructure in place – it always made sense to chase this sort of customer as well.  This may no longer be the case.

What is the way forward? 

I don’t know, which is why I avoided writing about this topic before now.  Pointless speculation doesn’t benefit anyone and I wanted to see how the card companies reacted.  Any of the following could happen:

  • Interest free periods to be reduced or potentially ended entirely
  • Credit card annual fees to become the norm rather than the exception
  • Cards to require a minimum monthly expenditure or to face a monthly fee (say, £5 fee if you don’t spend £1,000)
  • Drops in mileage earning rates
  • Pressure on Government to see Section 75 protection scrapped – you can’t seriously expect a credit card company to pay you if a retailer goes bust if they are only getting 0.3% on the sale
  • Accounts closed – or a monthly fee added – if customers refuse to accept online statements instead of paper statements
  • Customers with good credit histories to find it harder to be accepted for free credit cards, as they will generate no fee or interest income
  • Reductions in sign-up bonuses
  • Foreign exchange fees to be increased
  • Airlines forced to accept lower payments for miles
  • Card benefits to focus more on additional features such as awarding status or 2-4-1 redemption vouchers rather than mileage.  You may see a move to more ‘statement credit offers’ as offered by Amex as these are funded externally by the merchants.

What does this mean for you?

You should bear the following in mind when considering what to do next with your credit card portfolio:

Existing card reward schemes will be unaffected in the short-term, but at some point the issuer will start losing money on every purchase you make and will consider devaluing ongoing earnings. Capital One has already done this.

Think carefully about closing generous non-Amex card accounts – you probably won’t be able to open anything as generous next year.

Diversification is probably a sensible strategy. Not every issuer will be as reliant on interchange margins to sustain their business model.  Some will be slower (by years) to take rewards from existing customers even if they close the door to new clients, especially if they have already committed to spending £x million on miles.

Third-party Amex cards (e.g. issued by MBNA) have a three-year stay of execution from the EU, so shouldn’t change too much. Eventually these cards will be as unattractive to issuers as MasterCard or Visa but for now they will continue to be profitable.

Amex-issued cards are not subject to any caps. Despite this, I would still expect their rewards programmes to become less generous over a five year period.  The obvious reason is that they will have to cut the fees they charge merchants to remain competitive against MasterCard or Visa.  The less obvious reason is that they will have less competition so won’t need to try as hard.

Small business cards are not included in these new rules. Cards targeted at small businesses may be an option for the self-employed. Whilst Amex currently dominates this market, we might see Visa and MasterCard providers taking a renewed interest. They may even have very lax requirements for what they call a ‘business’ – perhaps a bit of eBay selling would count ….

The three-year ‘stay of execution’ on Amex cards issued by MBNA, Lloyds and Barclays explains why the card companies are still chasing your business.  For example, MBNA has just launched a 25,000 mile sign-up bonus for the free Etihad credit card.  This is the best sign-up bonus on a free credit card for over two years!

It does not explain why Barclaycard made a big push recently to relaunch the IHG credit cards, which only come as a Visa.  Barclaycard does have an Amex licence, however, and I expect these cards to become an Amex / Visa double-pack.

The shape of things to come …

The Lloyds Avios Rewards Amex and MasterCard package seems to be to be the ideal model for an airline or hotel credit card for 2016-2019 until the cap on Amex fees on non Amex-issued cards kicks in:

  • The cards have an annual fee
  • The cards have a good earning rate on the American Express
  • The cards have a terrible earning rate on the MasterCard – so poor that you would be crazy to use it given a choice
  • The interest rate is relatively high if you do not clear your balance

This is the way forward, I think, whether we like it or not.

If you want to know more about how interchange fees work, and the impact of capping them in Spain and Australia, this report (PDF) is worth a read.

Industry analyst Andrew Seftel – @andrewseftel – generously helped me with this article.  Andrew has also offered to help answer any questions that you post below.  All views are his own.

(Want to earn more miles and points from credit cards?  Click here to visit our ‘Credit Cards Update’ page or use the link in the menu bar at the top of the page.)

Comments (45)

  • Alan says:

    Thanks for the article, Rob and Andrew – interesting if somewhat depressing reading! If you want a flavour of the impact in Oz, then take a look at the Qantas site to see the fees involved! A few decent offers, but mainly quite hefty annual fees.

  • RICO says:

    Worth noting that it is only the credit card part of loyalty schemes that is affected. DM ran the article saying that the change in earn rate for BA economy flights and the changes in price in Avios charged for flights and the halving of the earn rate for nectar members spending in Sainsburys was because of this EU regulation. Shock horror they are completely unrelated.

  • Camille says:

    “Every time you start taking away from credit card companies they’re going to make it elsewhere,” says James Wester, a global research director at IDC specializing in payments.

    Precisely. That is from one of the quoted articles and, upon this basis, I would argue nothing much will change and miles/points/perks will continue to be offered.

    An example – my businesses has a merchant account and we have just been informed our rate for MC is reducing even further to sub 1%. However, the letter also describes a “Peace of Mind” package “free for the rest of 2015″…..effectively customer service & support which we presently enjoy ‘for free’/part of our account service, but which will by implication be chargeable 2016 onwards.

    Cant help but think nothing will change. If one revenue stream is curtailed by legislation, CC companies will simply replace it with another.

    • Rob says:

      That service is from your merchant bank though. None of the extra will go back to the card issuer.

      The way to keep rewards cards going is to mis-sell them to people who will pay interest, at an interest rate that is usually double the rate of a market-leading low rate card. And no-one wins of that happens.