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This has been a big year for business in the courts. A U.S. district court approved the AT&T-Time Warner merger, the Supreme Court upheld Amex’s agreements with merchants, and a circuit court pushed back on the Federal Trade Commission’s vague and heavy handed policing of companies’ consumer data safeguards.

These three decisions mark a new era in the intersection of law and economics.

AT&T-Time Warner

AT&T-Time Warner is a vertical merger, a combination of firms with a buyer-seller relationship. Time Warner creates and broadcasts content via outlets such as HBO, CNN, and TNT. AT&T distributes content via services such as DirecTV.

Economists see little risk to competition from vertical mergers, although there are some idiosyncratic circumstances in which competition could be harmed. Nevertheless, the U.S. Department of Justice went to court to block the merger.

The last time the goverment sued to block a merger was more than 40 years ago, and the government lost. Since then, the government relied on the threat of litigation to extract settlements from the merging parties. For example, in the 1996 merger between Time Warner and Turner, the FTC required limits on how the new company could bundle HBO with less desirable channels and eliminated agreements that allowed TCI (a cable company that partially owned Turner) to carry Turner channels at preferential rates.

With AT&T-Time Warner, the government took a big risk, and lost. It was a big risk because (1) it’s a vertical merger, and (2) the case against the merger was weak. The government’s expert argued consumers would face an extra 45 cents a month on their cable bills if the merger went through, but under cross-examination, conceded it might be as little as 13 cents a month. That’s a big difference and raised big questions about the reliability of the expert’s model.

Judge Richard J. Leon’s 170+ page ruling agreed that the government’s case was weak and its expert was not credible. While it’s easy to cheer a victory of big business over big government, the real victory was the judge’s heavy reliance on facts, data, and analysis rather than speculation over the potential for consumer harm. That’s a big deal and may make the way for more vertical mergers.

Ohio v. American Express

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Amex may seem obscure. The court backed American Express Co.’s policy of preventing retailers from offering customers incentives to pay with cheaper cards.

Amex charges higher fees to merchants than do other cards, such as Visa, MasterCard, and Discover. Amex cardholders also have higher incomes and tend to spend more at stores than those associated with other networks. And, Amex offers its cardholders better benefits, services, and rewards than the other cards. Merchants don’t like Amex because of the higher fees, customers prefer Amex because of the card’s perks.

Amex, and other card companies, operate in what is known as a two-sided market. Put simply, they have two sets of customers: merchants who pay swipe fees, and consumers who pay fees and interest.

Part of Amex’s agreement with merchants is an “anti-steering” provision that bars merchants from offering discounts for using non-Amex cards. The U.S. Justice Department and a group of states sued the company, alleging the Amex rules limited merchants’ ability to reduce their costs from accepting credit cards, which meant higher retail prices. Amex argued that the higher prices charged to merchants were kicked back to its cardholders in the form of more and better perks.

The Supreme Court found that the Justice Department and states focused exclusively on one side (merchant fees) of the two-sided market. The courts says the government can’t meet its burden by showing some effect on some part of the market. Instead, they must demonstrate, “increased cost of credit card transactions … reduced number of credit card transactions, or otherwise stifled competition.” The government could not prove any of those things.

We live in a world two-sided markets. Amazon may be the biggest two-sided market in the history of the world, linking buyers and sellers. Smartphones such as iPhones and Android devices are two-sided markets, linking consumers with app developers. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Amex sets a standard for how antitrust law should treat the economics of two-sided markets.

LabMD

LabMD is another matter that seems obscure, but could have big impacts on the administrative state.

Since the early 2000s, the FTC has brought charges against more than 150 companies alleging they had bad security or privacy practices. LabMD was one of them, when its computer system was compromised by professional hackers in 2008. The FTC claimed that LabMD’s failure to adequately protect customer data was an “unfair” business practice.

Challenging the FTC can get very expensive and the agency used the threat of litigation to secure settlements from dozens of companies. It then used those settlements to convince everyone else that those settlements constituted binding law and enforceable security standards.

Because no one ever forced the FTC to defend what it was doing in court, the FTC’s assertion of legal authority became a self-fulfilling prophecy. LabMD, however, chose to challege the FTC. The fight drove LabMD out of business, but public interest law firm Cause of Action and lawyers at Ropes & Gray took the case on a pro bono basis.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the FTC’s approach to developing security standards violates basic principles of due process. The court said the FTC’s basic approach—in which the FTC tries to improve general security practices by suing companies that experience security breaches—violates the basic legal principle that the government can’t punish someone for conduct that the government hasn’t previously explained is problematic.

My colleague at ICLE observes the lesson to learn from LabMD isn’t about the illegitimacy of the FTC’s approach to internet privacy and security. Instead, it says legality of the administrative state is premised on courts placing a check on abusive regulators.

The lessons learned from these three recent cases reflect a profound shift in thinkging about the laws governing economic activity:

  • AT&T-Time Warner indicates that facts matter. Mere speculation of potential harms will not satisfy the court.
  • Amex highlights the growing role two-sided markets play in our economy and provides framework for evaluating competition in these markets.
  • LabMD is a small step in reining in the administrative state. Regulations must be scrutinized before they are imposed and enforced.

In some ways none of these decisions are revolutionary. Instead, they reflect an evolution toward greater transparency in how the law is to be applied and greater scrutiny over how the regulations are imposed.

 

Excess is unflattering, no less when claiming that every evolution in legal doctrine is a slippery slope leading to damnation. In Friday’s New York Times, Lina Khan trots down this alarmist path while considering the implications for the pending Supreme Court case of Ohio v. American Express. One of the core issues in the case is the proper mode of antitrust analysis for credit card networks as two-sided markets. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with arguments, such as those that we have made, that it is important to consider the costs and benefits to both sides of a two-sided market when conducting an antitrust analysis. The Second Circuit’s opinion is under review in the American Express case.

Khan regards the Second Circuit approach of conducting a complete analysis of these markets as a mistake.

On her reading, the idea that an antitrust analysis of credit card networks should reflect their two-sided-ness would create “de facto antitrust immunity” for all platforms:

If affirmed, the Second Circuit decision would create de facto antitrust immunity for the most powerful companies in the economy. Since internet technologies have enabled the growth of platform companies that serve multiple groups of users, firms like Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Uber are set to be prime beneficiaries of the Second Circuit’s warped analysis. Amazon, for example, could claim status as a two-sided platform because it connects buyers and sellers of goods; Google because it facilitates a market between advertisers and search users… Indeed, the reason that the tech giants are lining up behind the Second Circuit’s approach is that — if ratified — it would make it vastly more difficult to use antitrust laws against them.

This paragraph is breathtaking. First, its basic premise is wrong. Requiring a complete analysis of the complicated economic effects of conduct undertaken in two sided markets before imposing antitrust liability would not create “de facto antitrust immunity.” It would require that litigants present, and courts evaluate, credible evidence sufficient to establish a claim upon which an enforcement action can be taken — just like in any other judicial proceeding in any area of law. Novel market structures may require novel analytical models and novel evidence, but that is no different with two-sided markets than with any other complicated issue before a court.

Second, the paragraph’s prescribed response would be, in fact, de facto antitrust liability for any firm competing in a two-sided market — that is, as Kahn notes, almost every major tech firm.

A two-sided platform competes with other platforms by facilitating interactions between the two sides of the market. This often requires a careful balancing of the market: in most of these markets too many or too few participants on one side of the market reduces participation on the other side. So these markets play the role of matchmaker, charging one side of the market a premium in order to cross-subsidize a desirable level of participation on the other. This will be discussed more below, but the takeaway for now is that most of these platforms operate by charging one side of the market (or some participants on one side of the market) an above-cost price in order to charge the other side of the market a below-cost price. A platform’s strategy on either side of the market makes no sense without the other, and it does not adopt practices on one side without carefully calibrating them with the other. If one does not consider both sides of these markets, therefore, the simplistic approach that Kahn demands will systematically fail to capture both the intent and the effect of business practices in these markets. More importantly, such an approach could be used to find antitrust violations throughout these industries — no matter the state of competition, market share, or actual consumer effects.

What are two-sided markets?

Khan notes that there is some element of two-sidedness in many (if not most) markets:

Indeed, almost all markets can be understood as having two sides. Firms ranging from airlines to meatpackers could reasonably argue that they meet the definition of “two-sided,” thereby securing less stringent review.

This is true, as far as it goes, as any sale of goods likely involves the selling party acting as some form of intermediary between chains of production and consumption. But such a definition is unworkably broad from the point of view of economic or antitrust analysis. If two-sided markets exist as distinct from traditional markets there must be salient features that define those specialized markets.

Economists have been intensively studying two-sided markets (see, e.g., here, here, and here) for the past two decades (and had recognized many of their basic characteristics even before then). As Khan notes, multi-sided platforms have indeed existed for a long time in the economy. Newspapers, for example, provide a targeted outlet for advertisers and incentives for subscribers to view advertisements; shopping malls aggregate retailers in one physical location to lower search costs for customers, while also increasing the retailers’ sales volume. Relevant here, credit card networks are two-sided platforms, facilitating credit-based transactions between merchants and consumers.

One critical feature of multi-sided platforms is the interdependent demand of platform participants. Thus, these markets require a simultaneous critical mass of users on each side in order to ensure the viability of the platform. For instance, a credit card is unlikely to be attractive to consumers if few merchants accept it; and few merchants will accept a credit card that isn’t used by a sufficiently large group of consumers. To achieve critical mass, a multi-sided platform uses both pricing and design choices, and, without critical mass on all sides, the positive feedback effects that enable the platform’s unique matching abilities might not be achieved.

This highlights the key distinction between traditional markets and multi-sided markets. Most markets have two sides (e.g., buyers and sellers), but that alone doesn’t make them meaningfully multi-sided. In a multi-sided market a key function of the platform is to facilitate the relationship between the sides of the market in order to create and maintain an efficient relationship between them. The platform isn’t merely a reseller of a manufacturer’s goods, for instance, but is actively encouraging or discouraging participation by users on both sides of the platform in order to maximize the value of the platform itself — not the underlying transaction — for those users. Consumers, for instance, don’t really care how many pairs of jeans a clothier stocks; but a merchant does care how many cardholders an issuer has on its network. This is most often accomplished by using prices charged to each side (in the case of credit cards, so-called interchange fees) to keep each side an appropriate size.

Moreover, the pricing that occurs on a two-sided platform is secondary, to a varying extent, to the pricing of the subject of the transaction. In a two-sided market, the prices charged to either side of the market are an expression of the platform’s ability to control the terms on which the different sides meet to transact and is relatively indifferent to the thing about which the parties are transacting.

The nature of two-sided markets highlights the role of these markets as more like facilitators of transactions and less like traditional retailers of goods (though this distinction is a matter of degree, and different two-sided markets can be more-or-less two-sided). Because the platform uses prices charged to each side of the market in order to optimize overall use of the platform (that is, output or volume of transactions), pricing in these markets operates differently than pricing in traditional markets. In short, the pricing on one side of the platform is often used to subsidize participation on the other side of the market, because the overall value to both sides is increased as a result. Or, conversely, pricing to one side of the market may appear to be higher than the equilibrium level when viewed for that side alone, because this funds a subsidy to increase participation on another side of the market that, in turn, creates valuable network effects for the side of the market facing the higher fees.

The result of this dynamic is that it is more difficult to assess the price and output effects in multi-sided markets than in traditional markets. One cannot look at just one side of the platform — at the level of output and price charged to consumers of the underlying product, say — but must look at the combined pricing and output of both the underlying transaction as well as the platform’s service itself, across all sides of the platform.

Thus, as David Evans and Richard Schmalensee have observed, traditional antitrust reasoning is made more complicated in the presence of a multi-sided market:

[I]t is not possible to know whether standard economic models, often relied on for antitrust analysis, apply to multi-sided platforms without explicitly considering the existence of multiple customer groups with interdependent demand…. [A] number of results for single-sided firms, which are the focus of much of the applied antitrust economics literature, do not apply directly to multi-sided platforms.

The good news is that antitrust economists have been focusing significant attention on two- and multi-sided markets for a long while. Their work has included attention to modelling the dynamics and effects of competition in these markets, including how to think about traditional antitrust concepts such as market definition, market power and welfare analysis. What has been lacking, however, has been substantial incorporation of this analysis into judicial decisions. Indeed, this is one of the reasons that the Second Circuit’s opinion in this case was, and why the Supreme Court’s opinion will be, so important: this work has reached the point that courts are recognizing that these markets can and should be analyzed differently than traditional markets.

Getting the two-sided analysis wrong in American Express would harm consumers

Khan describes credit card networks as a “classic case of oligopoly,” and opines that American Express’s contractual anti-steering provision is, “[a]s one might expect, the credit card companies us[ing] their power to block competition.” The initial, inherent tension in this statement should be obvious: the assertion is simultaneously that this a non-competitive, oligopolistic market and that American Express is using the anti-steering provision to harm its competitors. Indeed, rather than demonstrating a classic case of oligopoly, this demonstrates the competitive purpose that the anti-steering provision serves: facilitating competition between American Express and other card issuers.

The reality of American Express’s anti-steering provision, which prohibits merchants who choose to accept AmEx cards from “steering” their customers to pay for purchases with other cards, is that it is necessary in order for American Express to compete with other card issuers. Just like analysis of multi-sided markets needs to consider all sides of the market, platforms competing in these markets need to compete on all sides of the market.

But the use of complex pricing schemes to determine prices on each side of the market to maintain an appropriate volume of transactions in the overall market creates a unique opportunity for competitors to behave opportunistically. For instance, if one platform charges a high fee to one side of the market in order to subsidize another side of the market (say, by offering generous rewards), this creates an opportunity for a savvy competitor to undermine that balancing by charging the first side of the market a lower fee, thus attracting consumers from its competitor and, perhaps, making its pricing strategy unprofitable. This may appear to be mere price competition. But the effects of price competition on one side of a multi-sided market are more complicated to evaluate than those of traditional price competition.

Generally, price competition has the effect of lowering prices for goods, increasing output, decreasing deadweight losses, and benefiting consumers. But in a multi-sided market, the high prices charged to one side of the market can be used to benefit consumers on the other side of the market; and that consumer benefit can increase output on that side of the market in ways that create benefits for the first side of the market. When a competitor poaches a platform’s business on a single side of a multi-sided market, the effects can be negative for users on every side of that platform’s market.

This is most often seen in cases, like with credit cards, where platforms offer differentiated products. American Express credit cards are qualitatively different than Visa and Mastercard credit cards; they charge more (to both sides of the market) but offer consumers a more expansive rewards program (funded by the higher transaction fees charged to merchants) and offer merchants access to what are often higher-value customers (ensured by the higher fees charged to card holders).

If American Express did not require merchants to abide by its anti-steering rule, it wouldn’t be able to offer this form of differentiated product; it would instead be required to compete solely on price. Cardholders exist who prefer higher-status cards with a higher-tier of benefits, and there are merchants that prefer to attract a higher-value pool of customers.

But without the anti-steering provisions, the only competition available is on the price to merchants. The anti-steering rule is needed in order to prevent merchants from free-riding on American Express’s investment in attracting a unique group of card holders to its platform. American Express maintains that differentiation from other cards by providing its card holders with unique and valuable benefits — benefits that are subsidized in part by the fees charged to merchants. But merchants that attract customers by advertising that they accept American Express cards but who then steer those customers to other cards erode the basis of American Express’s product differentiation. Because of the interdependence of both sides of the platform, this ends up undermining the value that consumers receive from the platform as American Express ultimately withdraws consumer-side benefits. In the end, the merchants who valued American Express in the first place are made worse off by virtue of being permitted to selectively free-ride on American Express’s network investment.

At this point it is important to note that many merchants continue to accept American Express cards in light of both the cards’ higher merchant fees and these anti-steering provisions. Meanwhile, Visa and Mastercard have much larger market shares, and many merchants do not accept Amex. The fact that merchants who may be irritated by the anti-steering provision continue to accept Amex despite it being more costly, and the fact that they could readily drop Amex and rely on other, larger, and cheaper networks, suggests that American Express creates real value for these merchants. In other words, American Express, in fact, must offer merchants access to a group of consumers who are qualitatively different from those who use Visa or Mastercard cards — and access to this group of consumers must be valuable to those merchants.

An important irony in this case is that those who criticize American Express’s practices, who are arguing these practices limit price competition and that merchants should be able to steer customers to lower-fee cards, generally also argue that modern antitrust law focuses too myopically on prices and fails to account for competition over product quality. But that is precisely what American Express is trying to do: in exchange for a higher price it offers a higher quality card for consumers, and access to a different quality of consumers for merchants.

Anticompetitive conduct here, there, everywhere! Or nowhere.

The good news is that many on the court — and, for that matter, even Ohio’s own attorney — recognize that the effects of the anti-steering rule on the cardholder side of the market need to be considered alongside their effects on merchants:

JUSTICE KENNEDY: Does output include premiums or rewards to customers?
MR. MURPHY: Yeah. Output would include quality considerations as well.

The bad news is that several justices don’t seem to get it. Justice Kagan, for instance, suggested that “the effect of these anti-steering provisions means a market where we will only have high-cost/high-service products.” Justice Kagan’s assertion reveals the hubris of the would-be regulator, bringing to her evaluation of the market a preconception of what that market is supposed to look like. To wit: following her logic, one can say just as much that without the anti-steering provisions we would have a market with only low-cost/low-service products. Without an evaluation of the relative effects — which is more complicated than simple intuition suggests, especially since one can always pay cash — there is no reason to say that either of these would be a better outcome.

The reality, however, is that it is possible for the market to support both high- and low-cost, and high- and low-service products. In fact, this is the market in which we live today. As Justice Gorsuch said, “American Express’s agreements don’t affect MasterCard or Visa’s opportunity to cut their fees … or to advertise that American Express’s are higher. There is room for all kinds of competition here.” Indeed, one doesn’t need to be particularly creative to come up with competitive strategies that other card issuers could adopt, from those that Justice Gorsuch suggests, to strategies where card issuers are, in fact, “forced” to accept higher fees, which they in turn use to attract more card holders to their networks, such as through sign-up bonuses or awards for American Express customers who use non-American Express cards at merchants who accept them.

A standard response to such proposals is “if that idea is so good, why isn’t the market already doing it?” An important part of the answer in this case is that MasterCard and Visa know that American Express relies on the anti-steering provision in order to maintain its product differentiation.

Visa and Mastercard were initially defendants in this case, as well, as they used similar rules to differentiate some of their products. It’s telling that these larger market participants settled because, to some extent, harming American Express is worth more to them than their own product differentiation. After all, consumers steered away from American Express will generally use Visa or Mastercard (and their own high-priced cards may be cannibalizing from their own low-priced cards anyway, so reducing their value may not hurt so much). It is therefore a better strategy for them to try to use the courts to undermine that provision so that they don’t actually need to compete with American Express.

Without the anti-steering provision, American Express loses its competitive advantage compared to MasterCard and Visa and would be forced to compete against those much larger platforms on their preferred terms. What’s more, this would give those platforms access to American Express’s vaunted high-value card holders without the need to invest resources in competing for them. In other words, outlawing anti-steering provisions could in fact have both anti-competitive intent and effect.

Of course, card networks aren’t necessarily innocent of anticompetitive conduct, one way or the other. Showing that they are on either side of the anti-steering rule requires a sufficiently comprehensive analysis of the industry and its participants’ behavior. But liability cannot be simply determined based on behavior on one side of a two-sided market. These companies can certainly commit anticompetitive mischief, and they need to be held accountable when that happens. But this case is not about letting American Express or tech companies off the hook for committing anticompetitive conduct. This case is about how we evaluate such allegations, weigh them against possible beneficial effects, and put in place the proper thorough analysis for this particular form of business.

Over the last two decades, scholars have studied the nature of multi-sided platforms, and have made a good deal of progress. We should rely on this learning, and make sure that antitrust analysis is sound, not expedient.

Today, the International Center for Law & Economics (ICLE) released a study updating our 2014 analysis of the economic effects of the Durbin Amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act.

The new paper, Unreasonable and Disproportionate: How the Durbin Amendment Harms Poorer Americans and Small Businesses, by ICLE scholars, Todd J. Zywicki, Geoffrey A. Manne, and Julian Morris, can be found here; a Fact Sheet highlighting the paper’s key findings is available here.

Introduced as part of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, the Durbin Amendment sought to reduce the interchange fees assessed by large banks on debit card transactions. In the words of its primary sponsor, Sen. Richard Durbin, the Amendment aspired to help “every single Main Street business that accepts debit cards keep more of their money, which is a savings they can pass on to their consumers.”

Unfortunately, although the Durbin Amendment did generate benefits for big-box retailers, ICLE’s 2014 analysis found that it had actually harmed many other merchants and imposed substantial net costs on the majority of consumers, especially those from lower-income households.

In the current study, we analyze a welter of new evidence and arguments to assess whether time has ameliorated or exacerbated the Amendment’s effects. Our findings in this report expand upon and reinforce our findings from 2014:

Relative to the period before the Durbin Amendment, almost every segment of the interrelated retail, banking, and consumer finance markets has been made worse off as a result of the Amendment.

Predictably, the removal of billions of dollars in interchange fee revenue has led to the imposition of higher bank fees and reduced services for banking consumers.

In fact, millions of households, regardless of income level, have been adversely affected by the Durbin Amendment through higher overdraft fees, increased minimum balances, reduced access to free checking, higher ATM fees, and lost debit card rewards, among other things.

Nor is there any evidence that merchants have lowered prices for retail consumers; for many small-ticket items, in fact, prices have been driven up.

Contrary to Sen. Durbin’s promises, in other words, increased banking costs have not been offset by lower retail prices.

At the same time, although large merchants continue to reap a Durbin Amendment windfall, there remains no evidence that small merchants have realized any interchange cost savings — indeed, many have suffered cost increases.

And all of these effects fall hardest on the poor. Hundreds of thousands of low-income households have chosen (or been forced) to exit the banking system, with the result that they face higher costs, difficulty obtaining credit, and complications receiving and making payments — all without offset in the form of lower retail prices.

Finally, the 2017 study also details a new trend that was not apparent when we examined the data three years ago: Contrary to our findings then, the two-tier system of interchange fee regulation (which exempts issuing banks with under $10 billion in assets) no longer appears to be protecting smaller banks from the Durbin Amendment’s adverse effects.

This week the House begins consideration of the Amendment’s repeal as part of Rep. Hensarling’s CHOICE Act. Our study makes clear that the Durbin price-control experiment has proven a failure, and that repeal is, indeed, the only responsible option.

Click on the following links to read:

Full Paper

Fact Sheet

Summary

[The following is a guest post by Thomas McCarthy on the Supreme Court’s recent Amex v. Italian Colors Restaurant decision. Tom is a partner at Wiley Rein, LLP and a George Mason Law grad. He is/was also counsel for, among others,

So he’s had a busy week….]

The Supreme Court’s recent opinion in American Express Co. v. Italian Colors Restaurant (June 20, 2013) (“Amex”) is a resounding victory for freedom-of-contract principles.  As it has done repeatedly in recent terms (see AT&T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion (2011); Marmet Health Care Center, Inc. v. Brown (2012)), the Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) makes arbitration “a matter of contract,” requiring courts to “rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms.”  Amex at 3.  In so doing, it rejected the theory that class procedures must remain available to claimants in order to ensure that they have sufficient financial incentive to prosecute federal statutory claims of relatively low value.  Consistent with the freedom-of-contract principles enshrined in the FAA, an arbitration agreement must be enforced—even if the manner in which the parties agreed to arbitrate leaves would-be claimants with low-value claims that are not worth pursuing.

In Amex, merchants who accept American Express cards filed a class action against Amex, asserting that Amex violated Section 1 of the Sherman Act by “us[ing] its monopoly power in the market for charge cards to force merchants to accept credit cards at rates approximately 30% higher than the fees for competing credit cards.”  Amex at 1-2.  And, of course, the merchants sought treble damages for the class under Section 4 of the Clayton Act.  Under the terms of their agreement with American Express, the merchants had agreed to resolve all disputes via individual arbitration, that is, without the availability of class procedures.  Consistent with that agreement, American Express moved to compel individual arbitration, but the merchants countered that the costs of expert analysis necessary to prove their antitrust claims would greatly exceed the maximum recovery for any individual plaintiff, thereby precluding them from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights under the Sherman Act.  The Second Circuit sided with the merchants, holding that the prohibitive costs the merchants would face if they had to arbitrate on an individual basis rendered the class-action waiver in the arbitration agreement unenforceable.

In a 5-3 majority (per Justice Scalia), the Supreme Court reversed.  The Court began by highlighting the Federal Arbitration Act’s freedom-of-contract mandate—that “courts must rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms, including terms that specify with whom [the parties] choose to arbitrate their disputes, and the rules under which that arbitration will be conducted.”  Amex at 2-3 (internal quotations and citations omitted).  It emphasized that this mandate applies even to federal statutory claims, “unless the FAA’s mandate has been overridden by a contrary congressional command.”  Amex at 3 (internal quotations and citations omitted).  The Court then briefly explained that no contrary congressional command exists in either the federal antitrust laws or Rule 23 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure (which allows for class actions in certain circumstances).

Next, the Court turned to the merchants’ principal argument—that the arbitration agreement should not be enforced because enforcing it (including its class waiver provision) would preclude plaintiffs from effectively vindicating their federal statutory rights.  The Court noted that this “effective vindication” exception “originated as dictum” in prior cases and that the Court has only “asserted [its] existence” without ever having applied it in any particular case.  Amex at 6.  The Court added that this exception grew out of a desire to prevent a “prospec­tive waiver of a party’s right to pursue statutory reme­dies,” explaining that it “would certainly cover a provision in an arbitration agreement forbidding the assertion of certain statutory rights.”  The Court added that this exception might “perhaps cover filing and administrative fees attached to arbitration that are so high as to make access to the forum impracticable,” Amex at 6, but emphasized that, whatever the scope of this exception, the fact that the manner of arbitration the parties contracted for might make it “not worth the expense” to pursue a statutory remedy “does not constitute the elimination of the right to pursue that remedy.”  Amex at 7.

The Court closed by noting that its previous decision in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion “all but resolves this case.”  Amex at 8.  In Concepcion, the Court had invalidated a state law “conditioning enforcement of arbitration on the availability of class procedures because that law ‘interfere[d] with fundamental attributes of arbitration.’”   As the Court explained, Concepcion specifically rejected the argument “that class arbitration was necessary to prosecute claims ‘that might otherwise slip through the legal system’” thus establishing “that the FAA’s command to enforce arbitration agreements trumps any interest in ensuring the prosecution of low value claims.”  Amex at 9 (quoting Concepcion).  The Court made clear that, under the FAA, courts are to hold parties to the deal they struck—arbitration pursuant to the terms of their arbitration agreements, even if that means that certain claims may go unprosecuted.  Responding to a dissent penned by Justice Kagan, who complained that the Court’s decision would lead to “[l]ess arbitration,” contrary to the pro-arbitration policies of the FAA, Amex dissent at 5, the Court doubled down on this point, emphasizing that the FAA “favor[s] the absence of litigation when that is the consequence of a class-action waiver, since its ‘principal purpose’ is the enforcement of arbitration agreements according to their terms.”  Amex at 9 n.5 (emphasis added).

By holding parties to the deal they struck regarding the resolution of their disputes, the Court properly vindicates the FAA’s freedom-of-contract mandates.  And even assuming the dissenters are correct that there will be less arbitration in individual instances, the opposite is true on a macro level.  For where there is certainty in contract enforcement, parties will enter into contracts.  Amex thus should promote arbitration by eliminating uncertainty in contracting and thereby removing a barrier to swift and efficient resolution of disputes.

Many thanks to the Truth on the Market bloggers for having me.  I’ve long enjoyed reading the blog and am delighted to be contributing.  A quick disclaimer up front to apply to all my posts:  The views expressed here are my own and do not express the views of my employer or clients.

 

Economists have long warned against price regulation in the context of network industries, but until now our tools have been limited to complex theoretical models. Last week, the heavens sent down a natural experiment so powerful that the theoretical models are blushing: In response to a new regulation preventing banks from charging debit-card swipe fees to merchants, Bank of America announced that it would charge its customers $5 a month for debit card purchases. And Chase and Wells Fargo are testing $3 monthly debit-card fees in certain markets. In case you haven’t been following the action, the basic details are here. What in the world does this development have to do with an “open” Internet? A lot, actually.

The D.C. Court of Appeals has been asked to consider several legal challenges to the FCC’s Open Internet Order. Passed in December 2010, the Open Internet Order was the regulatory culmination of an intense lobbying campaign by certain websites and so-called consumer groups to regulate the fees that Internet access providers such as Comcast or Verizon may charge to websites.

Although the challenges to the Open Internet Order largely concern the FCC’s authority to regulate Internet access providers and the proper scope of the regulations—for example, whether they should apply to wireline networks only or to all broadband networks including wireless—here’s to hoping that the rules are also judged according to the FCC’s public-interest standard. Along that dimension, the FCC’s experiment in price regulation clearly fails.

Just as Internet access providers bring together websites and users, banks provide a two-sided platform, bringing together merchants and customers in millions of cashless transactions. Because banking networks cost money to create, banks can’t be expected to provide their services for free. If you tell a bank that it can’t charge one side of a two-sided market—particularly when that one side (the merchant side) is less price sensitive than the other (the customer side)—then expect customer fees to rise. It’s not because banks are evil; it is because the profit-maximizing price charged to customers by a bank depends on the price charged to merchants.

Ignoring this economic lesson of two-sided markets, the Durbin Amendment to the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act instructed the Federal Reserve Board to cap swipe fees charged by banks to merchants. Prodded by consumer advocates to eliminate the fees entirely, the Fed cut the fees in half, to about 24 cents per transaction from an average of 44 cents per transaction. Paradoxically, the smaller the merchant fee, the larger is the debit fee—this is the “seesaw principle” of two-sided markets in action. Say hello to $5 monthly debit fees.

In a classic case of one regulation spawning another, now there is talk of regulating the banks’ debit-card charges. In response to the new debit fees, some members of Congress asked the Justice Department to investigate the major banks, suggesting that the higher fees resulted from a pricing conspiracy and not from their own bone-headed price regulation.

Months before the new debit fees came into effect, Bob Litan of the Brookings Institution predicted in a paper that “consumers and small business would face higher retail banking fees and lose valuable services as banks rationally seek to make up as much as they can for the debit interchange revenues they will lose under the [Federal Reserve] Board’s proposal.” As noted by Todd Zywicki in the Wall Street Journal, Litan’s prediction proved prescient.

Although both the Durbin Amendment and the FCC’s Open Internet Order are price regulations, there are important differences. Unlike the Fed’s rulemaking on swipe fees, the Open Internet Order was not directed by Congress. This shortcoming alone might be fatal for the Appeals Court. And unlike the Fed’s rulemaking, the FCC’s rulemaking regulates the merchant fee out of existence. Regulating prices below market-levels (as the Fed did) is one thing—regulating them to zero (as the FCC proposes) is beyond the pale.

Under the Open Internet Order, Internet access providers are banned from charging websites a surcharge for priority delivery. Indeed, the mere offering of such a fee to one website would be “discriminatory” and thus presumptively anticompetitive, even if the same offer were extended to other websites. Self-described public interest groups advocating for the Open Internet Order believe that if the smallest website in America can’t afford a surcharge for priority delivery, then no one should be allowed to buy it.

Assuming the FCC’s Order withstands legal scrutiny, the rules will clearly retard innovation among application developers: Why develop the next, killer real-time application if you can’t contract for priority delivery?

And if the Durbin Amendment is any guide, the effect of the Open Internet Order will be higher Internet access prices for consumers.

The same Bob Litan who accurately predicted price hikes in banking caused by price regulation made a similar prediction for broadband networks: “Even according to a theoretical model championed by net neutrality proponents, end users are unequivocally worse off under net neutrality regulation, as the end-user price of broadband access is always higher when ISPs are barred from raising revenues from content providers.” Will his sage advice be ignored by regulators twice in the same year?

The Appeals Court should force the FCC to defend the notion that the agency’s Open Internet Order is consistent with the public interest: If higher access prices and less innovation among application developers are the unintended consequences of an “open” Internet, then the FCC will fail on this score. With luck, the Open Internet Order will be seen as the ugly cousin of the Durbin Amendment, and the FCC’s experiment in price regulation will be curtailed.

Here’s Professor Zywicki in the WSJ on the debit card interchange price controls going into effect, and their unintended but entirely predictable consequences:

Faced with a dramatic cut in revenues (estimated to be $6.6 billion by Javelin Strategy & Research, a global financial services consultancy), banks have already imposed new monthly maintenance fees—usually from $36 to $60 per year—on standard checking and debit-card accounts, as well as new or higher fees on particular bank services. While wealthier consumers have avoided many of these new fees—for example, by maintaining a sufficiently high minimum balance—a Bankrate survey released this week reported that only 45% of traditional checking accounts are free, down from 75% in two years.

Some consumers who previously banked for free will be unable or unwilling to pay these fees merely for the privilege of a bank account. As many as one million individuals will drop out of the mainstream banking system and turn to check cashers, pawn shops and high-fee prepaid cards, according to an estimate earlier this year by economists David Evans, Robert Litan and Richard Schmalensee. (Their study was supported by banks.)

Consumers will also be encouraged to shift from debit cards to more profitable alternatives such as credit cards, which remain outside the Durbin amendment’s price controls. According to news reports, Bank of America has made a concerted effort to shift customers from debit to credit cards, including plans to charge a $5 monthly fee for debit-card purchases. Citibank has increased its direct mail efforts to recruit new credit card customers frustrated by the increased cost and decreased benefits of debit cards.

This substitution will offset the hemorrhaging of debit-card revenues for banks. But it is also likely to eat into the financial windfall expected by big box retailers and their lobbyists. They likely will return to Washington seeking to extend price controls to credit cards. …

Todd closes with a nice point about where the impact of these regulations will be felt most:

Conceived of as a narrow special-interest giveaway to large retailers, the Durbin amendment will have long-term consequences for the consumer banking system. Wealthier consumers will be able to avoid the pinch of higher banking fees by increasing their use of credit cards. Many low-income consumers will not.

Read the whole thing.

 

[Cross-posted at PYMNTS.COM]

Richard Cordray’s nomination hearing provided an opportunity to learn something new about the substantive policies of the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  Unfortunately, that opportunity came and went without answering many of the key questions that remain concerning the impact of the CFPB’s enforcement and regulatory agenda on the availability of consumer credit, economic growth, and jobs.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s critics, including myself, [1] have expressed concerns that the CFPB— through enforcement and regulation—could harm consumers and small businesses by reducing the availability of credit.  The intellectual blueprint for the CFPB is founded on the insight, from behavioral economics, that “[m]any consumers are uninformed and irrational,” that “consumers make systematic mistakes in their choice of credit products,” and that the CFPB should play a central role in determining which and to what extent these products are used. [2] The CFPB’s recent appointment of Sendhil Mullainathan as its Assistant Director for Research confirms its commitment to the behaviorist approach to regulation of consumer credit.  Mullainathan, in work co-authored with Professor Michael S. Barr, provided the intellectual basis for the much debated “plain vanilla” provision in the original legislation and advocated a whole host of new consumer credit regulations ranging from improved disclosures to “harder” forms of paternalism.  The concern, in short, is that the CFPB is hard-wired to take a myopic view of the tried-and-true benefits of consumer credit markets and runs the risk of harming many (and especially the socially and economically disadvantaged groups in the greatest need of access to consumer credit) in the name of protecting the few.

To be sure, there is absolutely no doubt that there are unscrupulous and unsavory characters in lending markets engaging in bad acts ranging from fraud to preying upon vulnerable borrowers.  Nonetheless, it is critical to recognize the positive role that lending markets and the availability of consumer credit has played in the American economy, especially in facilitating entrepreneurial activity and small business growth.  Taking into account these important benefits is fundamental to developing sound consumer credit policy.  I had hoped that the hearings might focus upon Mr. Cordray’s underlying philosophical approach to weighing the costs and benefits of credit regulation and how that balance might be struck at his CFPB.  They did not, instead focusing largely upon another important issue: the precise contours of CFPB authority and oversight.

Currently, the unemployment rate is over 9 percent and all of the available evidence suggests the CFPB’s approach will run a significant risk of overregulation that will reduce the availability of consumer credit to small businesses and thus further depress the economy.  Therefore, getting hard answers concerning how the CFPB views and will account for these risks in its enforcement and regulatory decisions is critical.  Certainly, the nomination hearing offered small hints toward this end.  We learned that under Mr. Cordray’s watch, CFPB enforcement will involve not only lawsuits but also a “more flexible toolbox” that includes “research reports, rulemaking guidance, consumer education and empowerment, and the ability to supervise and examine both large banks and many nonbank institutions.”

The job of protecting consumers in financial products markets—the domain of the new CFPB—extends to all such consumers.  The benefits of healthy markets and competition in consumer credit products has generated tremendous economic benefits to the most disadvantaged as well as to small businesses.  If the CFPB agenda were limited to educating consumers about the costs and benefits of various products and improving disclosures, there would be far less need for concern that it will be a drag on consumers, entrepreneurial activity, and economic growth.  However, the CFPB’s intellectual blueprint suggests a more aggressive and dangerous agenda, and the authority it has been granted renders that agenda feasible.  The CFPB must account for the benefits from lending markets and balance them against its laudable objective of preventing deceptive practices when crafting its enforcement and regulatory agenda.  Unfortunately, after Tuesday’s nomination hearing, the CFPB’s approach to this complex and delicate balance remains an open question.

—–

[1] David S. Evans & Joshua D. Wright, The Effect of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency Act of 2009 on Consumer Credit, 22(3) Loyola Consumer L. Rev. 277 (2010).

[2] Oren Bar-Gill & Elizabeth Warren, Making Credit Safer, 157 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1, 39 (2008).

There has been plenty of Hurricane Irene blogging, and some posts linking natural disasters to various aspects of law and policy (see, e.g. my colleague Ilya Somin discussing property rights and falling trees).   Often, post-natural disaster economic discussion at TOTM turns to the perverse consequences of price gouging laws.  This time around, the damage from the hurricane got me thinking about the issue of availability of credit.  In policy debates in and around the new CFPB and its likely agenda — which is often reported to include restrictions on payday lending — I often take up the unpopular (at least in the rooms in which these debates often occur) position that while payday lenders can abuse consumers, one should think very carefully about incentives before going about restricting access to any form of consumer credit.  In the case of payday lending, for example, proponents of restrictions or outright bans generally have in mind a counterfactual world in which consumers who are choosing payday loans are simply “missing out” on other forms of credit with superior terms.  Often, proponents of this position rely upon a theory involving particular behavioral biases of at least some substantial fraction of borrowers who, for example, over estimate their future ability to pay off the loan.  Skeptics of government-imposed restrictions on access to consumer credit (whether it be credit cards or payday lending) often argue that such restrictions do not change the underlying demand for consumer credit.  Consumer demand for credit — whether for consumption smoothing purposes or in response to a natural disaster or personal income “shock” or another reason — is an important lubricant for economic growth.  Restrictions do not reduce this demand at all — in fact, critics of these restrictions point out, consumers are likely to switch to the closest substitute forms of credit available to them if access to one source is foreclosed.  Of course, these stories are not necessarily mutually exclusive: that is, some payday loan customers might irrationally use payday lending while better options are available while at the same time, it is the best source of credit available to other customers.

In any event, one important testable implication for the economic theories of payday lending relied upon by critics of such restrictions (including myself) is that restrictions on their use will have a negative impact on access to credit for payday lending customers (i.e. they will not be able to simply turn to better sources of credit).  While most critics of government restrictions on access to consumer credit appear to recognize the potential for abuse and favor disclosure regimes and significant efforts to police and punish fraud, the idea that payday loans might generate serious economic benefits for society often appears repugnant to supporters.  All of this takes me to an excellent paper that lies at the intersection of these two issues: natural disasters and the economic effects of restrictions on payday lending.  The paper is Adair Morse’s Payday Lenders: Heroes or Villians.    From the abstract:

I ask whether access to high-interest credit (payday loans) exacerbates or mitigates individual financial distress. Using natural disasters as an exogenous shock, I apply a propensity score matched, triple difference specification to identify a causal relationship between access-to-credit and welfare. I find that California foreclosures increase by 4.5 units per 1,000 homes in the year after a natural disaster, but the existence of payday lenders mitigates 1.0-1.3 of these foreclosures. In a placebo test for natural disasters covered by homeowner insurance, I find no payday lending mitigation effect. Lenders also mitigate larcenies, but have no effect on burglaries or vehicle thefts. My methodology demonstrates that my results apply to ordinary personal emergencies, with the caveat that not all payday loan customers borrow for emergencies.

To be sure, there are other papers with different designs that identify economic benefits from payday lending and other otherwise “disfavored” credit products.  Similarly, there papers out there that use different data and a variety of research designs and identify social harms from payday lending (see here for links to a handful, and here for a recent attempt).  A literature survey is available here.  Nonetheless, Morse’s results remind me that consumer credit institutions — even non-traditional ones — can generate serious economic benefits in times of need and policy analysts must be careful in evaluating and weighing those benefits against potential costs when thinking about and designing restrictions that will change incentives in consumer credit markets.

The Durbin Fee

Thom Lambert —  18 August 2011

Given the crucial role debit card “swipe” fees played in causing the recent financial crisis, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin insisted that the Dodd-Frank law (you know, the one that left Fannie and Freddie untouched) impose price controls on debit card transactions.  Ben Bernanke, who apparently doesn’t have enough on his plate, was tasked with determining banks’ processing and fraud-related costs and setting a swipe fee that’s just high enough to cover those costs.  Mr. Bernanke first decided that the aggregate cost totaled twelve cents per swipe.  After receiving over 11,000 helpful comments, Mr. Bernanke changed his mind.  Banks’ processing and fraud costs, he decided, are really 21 cents per swipe, plus 0.05 percent of the transaction amount.  In a few weeks (on October 1), the government will require banks to charge no more than that amount for each debit card transaction.

SHOCKINGLY, this price control seems to be altering other aspects of the deals banks strike with their customers.  The WSJ is reporting that a number of banks, facing the prospect of reduced revenues from swipe fees, are going to start charging customers an upfront, non-swipe fee for the right to make debit card purchases.  Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Suntrust, Regions, and Bank of America have announced plans to try or explore these sorts of fees — “Durbin Fees,” you might call them.

Whoever would have guessed that Mr. Durbin’s valiant effort to prevent future financial crises by imposing brute price controls would have had these sorts of unintended consequences?

Fortunately for me, I can just switch to using my credit card, which will not be subject to the price controls imposed by Messrs Durbin and Bernanke.  Because I earn a decent salary and have a good credit history, this sort of a switch won’t really hurt me.  In fact, as banks increase the rewards associated with credit card use (in an attempt to encourage customers to use credit in place of debit cards), I may be able to earn some extra goodies. 

Of course, lots of folks — especially those who are out of work or have defaulted on some financial obligations because of the financial crisis and ensuing recession — don’t have access to cheap credit.  They can’t avoid Durbin Fees the way I (and Messrs Durbin and Bernanke) can.  Oh well, I’m sure Mr. Durbin and his colleagues can come up with a subsidy for those folks.

I have submitted a comment to the Federal Reserve Board concerning Regulation II, along with the American Enterprise Institute’s Alex Brill, Christopher DeMuth, Alex J. Pollock, and Peter Wallison, as well as my George Mason colleague Todd Zywicki.  Regulation II implements the interchange fee provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act.

The comment makes a rather straightforward and simple point:

We write to express our concern that the Federal Reserve Board has not to date taken the prudent and, importantly, legally required step of conducting a competitive impact analysis of Regulation II, which implements the interchange fee provisions of section 1075 of the Dodd-Frank Act (Pub L. 111-203). We consider this to be one of the most significant legal changes to the payment system’s competitive landscape since the Electronic Funds Transfer Act in 1978. This dramatic statutory and subsequent regulatory change will undoubtedly trigger a complex set of consequences for all firms participating in the payment system as well as for consumers purchasing both retail goods and financial services. The Federal Reserve’s obligation to conduct a competitive impact analysis of Regulation II is an appropriate and prudent safeguard against legal change with potentially pernicious consequences for the economy and consumers. Given the Board’s own well-crafted standards, we do not believe it is appropriate for the Board to move forward in implementing Regulation II without the required competitive impact analysis.

The rest of the comment appears below the fold.

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