July 14, 2012
The Credit Card Settlement
Posted by Gordon Smith

Yesterday, Visa, MasterCard and some of the biggest credit card issuing banks settled a longstanding class action lawsuit over credit card swipe fees. Is this settlement a good thing for consumers?

From one of the many news stories about the credit card settlement:

"Over time, the reforms induced by this case and in this settlement should help reduce card-acceptance costs to merchants, which in turn will result in lower prices for all consumers," said K. Craig Wildfang, a partner at Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ciresi, and co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs.

The settlement agreement also would give merchants new rights to impose a surcharge on credit transactions, subject to a cap and other limitations. The rules governing such surcharges likely would be implemented in early 2013. Merchants also would be allowed to band together to try to negotiate better rates on the so-called interchange fees. 

Trish Wexler, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Payments Coalition, which represents the card issuers, said the provision for new surcharges is “not necessarily a consumer-friendly provision -- and something that our side certainly did not want to happen.”

Merhcants have always been permitted to offer discounts for cash or checks, even in (most?) states that prohibit surcharges for credit card transactions. While some people routinely seek cash discounts, most of us are so busy chasing miles or cash-back rewards that we are oblivious to the costs of the payments system.

I don't know whether this settlement will reduce prices, but I suspect that it will not reduce the use of credit cards. At least I hope it won't return us to those days of waiting behind people who are writing checks at the grocery store.

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