Archives For credit cards

In late August, Roberto Campos Neto, the head of Brazil’s central bank, is reported to have said about Pix, the bank’s two-year-old real-time-payments (RTP) system, that it “eliminates the need to have a credit card. I think that credit cards will cease to exist at some point soon.” Wow! Sounds amazing. A new system that does everything a credit card can do, but better.

As the old saying goes, however, something that sounds too good to be true probably isn’t. While Pix has some advantages, it also has many disadvantages. In particular, it lacks many of the features currently offered by credit cards, such as liability caps, fraud prevention, and—perhaps crucially—access to credit. So, it seems unlikely to replace credit cards any time soon.

Pix and the Unbanked

When Brazil’s central bank launched Pix in November 2020, evangelists at the bank hoped it would offer a low-cost alternative to existing payments and would entice some of the country’s tens of millions of unbanked and underbanked adults into the banking system. While Pix has, indeed, attracted many users, it has done little, if anything, to solve the problem of the unbanked.

Proponents of Pix asserted that the RTP system would dramatically reduce the number of unbanked individuals in Brazil. While it is true that many Brazilians who were previously unbanked do now have Pix accounts, it would be incorrect to conclude that Pix was the reason they ceased to be unbanked.

A study by Americas Market Intelligence (commissioned by Mastercard) found that, during the COVID-19 pandemic, “Brazil reduced its unbanked population by an astounding 73%.” But the study was based on research conducted between June and August 2020 and was published in October 2020, the month before Pix launched. It described the implementation of state and federal programs launched in Brazil in response to the pandemic:

  • The “Coronavoucher” program distributed emergency funds to low-income informal workers exclusively via state-owned bank Caixa Econômica Federal (CEF). Applications for funds could only be made via CEF’s Caixa Tem smartphone app, and funds were distributed via the same app. As of Aug. 5, 2020, 66 million people had received Coronavouchers via the Caix Tem app. Of those, 36 million were previously unbanked.
  • Merenda em Casa (“snack at home”), a program run by state governments, distributed funds to low-income families with children at public schools to help them pay for food while schools were closed due to COVID-19. The program distributed funds via PicPay and PagBank’s PagSeguro, both private-sector payment apps.

Following the launch of Pix, the central bank-run RTP program was made available to clients of Caixa Tem, PicPay, and PagBank. As a result, previously unbanked individuals who had become banked because of the Coronavoucher and Merenda em Casa programs were able to obtain and use Pix keys to send and receive payments.

It remains unclear, however, what proportion of those previously unbanked individuals actually use Pix. As Figure 1 below shows, the number of Pix keys registered vastly outstrips the number of users. As such, not only is it false to claim that Pix helped reduce the number of unbanked Brazilians, but it isn’t possible to say with certainty how many of those previously unbanked individuals are now active users of Pix.

FIGURE 1: Pix Keys Registered to Natural Persons and Pix Users Who Are Natural Persons

Pix-Created Problems

Pix suffered a series of data breaches this past year, with the end result that details of Pix accounts were stolen from more than 500,000 account holders. Meanwhile, hackers have set up fake apps designed to steal money from users’ bank accounts by masquerading as legitimate Pix-compliant wallets. And Pix has been associated with a rise in lightning kidnappings, whereby kidnappers force their victims to make a transfer on Pix in order to be released.

Faced with the problem that they cannot avoid having Pix because their banks have automatically enabled the system, some Brazilians have responded to the threat of kidnappings by purchasing second “Pix phones.” Users load these mid-range Android phones with banking and Pix apps and leave them at home. Meanwhile, they delete all banking apps from their primary phone. While such an approach ostensibly prevents criminals from stealing potentially large amounts of money from individuals who can afford to have a second phone, it is quite a costly and inconvenient solution.

Pix vs Credit Cards

Roberto Campos Neto reportedly conceded that Pix data breaches will occur “with some frequency.” This acknowledgment of Pix’s unresolved security issues is difficult to square with the central bank president’s claim that the service will soon replace credit cards. After all, the major credit-card networks (Visa, Mastercard, American Express, and Discover) have more than half a century of experience managing fraud, and have built massive artificial-intelligence-based systems to identify and prevent potentially fraudulent transactions. Pix has no such system. Credit-card networks have also developed a highly effective system for challenging fraudulent transactions called “chargebacks.”

Card networks’ investment in fraud management has enabled them to offer “zero liability” terms to cardholders, which has made credit cards attractive as a means of paying for goods and services, both at brick-and-mortar locations and online. While Pix now has a system to reverse fraudulent transactions, its reliability has yet to be tested, and Pix as yet does not offer zero liability. Thus, given the choice between a credit card and Pix, users are unlikely to use Pix to pay for goods where there is a risk that the business will fail to deliver goods or services as promised.  

Finally, credit cards offer users the ability to defer payment for no fee until their next bill becomes due (usually at least a month). And they offer the ability to defer payment for longer, if necessary, with interest payable on the amount outstanding.

Conclusion: There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

The investments that credit-card networks have made in the identification, prevention, and rectification of fraud have been possible because they are able to charge a (very small) fee to process transactions. Pix also charges merchants a small fee for transactions but, as noted, it is not able to offer the same protections.

Most Pix transactions to date have been person-to-person (P2P), effectively replacing transactions that would have otherwise been made with cash, checks, or online bank-to-bank funds transfers. That makes sense when one thinks about the risks involved. P2P transactions are likely to involve parties that know one another and/or are engaged in repeat business. By contrast, many consumer-to-business and business-to-business transactions involve parties that are relatively less well-known to one another and thus have more incentive to renege on commitments. Consumers are therefore more inclined to use the payment system with protections built in, while merchants—who are happy for the additional business—are willing to pay the price for that business.

The science-fiction writer Robert Heinlein popularized a pithy phrase to describe the idea that it is not possible to get something for nothing: “There Ain’t No Such Thing as a Free Lunch.” If Pix is to challenge credit cards as a real consumer-payments system, it will have to offer similar levels of fraud protection to consumers. That will not be cheap. While the central bank might continue to subsidize Pix transactions, doing so to the degree that would be necessary to offer such fraud protections would be an abuse of its position. Thinking otherwise is science fiction.

Banco Central do Brasil (BCB), Brazil’s central bank, launched a new real-time payment (RTP) system in November 2020 called Pix. Evangelists at the central bank hoped that Pix would offer a low-cost alternative to existing payments systems and would entice some of the country’s tens of millions of unbanked and underbanked adults into the banking system.

A recent review of Pix, published by the Bank for International Settlements, claims that the payment system has achieved these goals and that it is a model for other jurisdictions. However, the BIS review seems to have been written with rose-tinted spectacles. This is perhaps not surprising, given that the lead author runs the division of the central bank that developed Pix. In a critique published this week, I suggest that, when seen in full color, Pix looks a lot less pretty. 

Among other things, the BIS review misconstrues the economics of payment networks. By ignoring the two-sided nature of such networks, the authors claim erroneously that payment cards incur a net economic cost. In fact, evidence shows that payment cards generate net benefits. One study put their value add to the Brazilian economy at 0.17% of GDP. 

The report also obscures the costs of the Pix system and fails to explain that, whereas private payment systems must recover their full operational cost, Pix appears to benefit from both direct and indirect subsidies. The direct subsidies come from the BCB, which incurred substantial costs in developing and promoting Pix and, unlike other central banks such as the U.S. Federal Reserve, is not required to recover all operational costs. Indirect subsidies come from the banks and other payment-service providers (PSPs), many of which have been forced by the BCB to provide Pix to their clients, even though doing so cannibalizes their other payment systems, including interchange fees earned from payment cards. 

Moreover, the BIS review mischaracterizes the role of interchange fees, which are often used to encourage participation in the payment-card network. In the case of debit cards, this often includes covering some or all of the operational costs of bank accounts. The availability of “free” bank accounts with relatively low deposit requirements offers customers incentives to open and maintain accounts. 

While the report notes that Pix has “signed up” 67% of adult Brazilians, it fails to mention that most of these were automatically enrolled by their banks, the majority of which were required by the BCB to adopt Pix. It also fails to mention that 33% of adult Brazilians have not “signed up” to Pix, nor that a recent survey found that more than 20% of adult Brazilians remain unbanked or underbanked, nor that the main reason given for not having a bank account was the cost of such accounts. Moreover, by diverting payments away from debit cards, Pix has reduced interchange fees and thereby reduced the ability of banks and other PSPs to subsidize bank accounts, which might otherwise have increased financial inclusion.  

The BIS review falsely asserts that “Big Tech” payment networks are able to establish and maintain market power. In reality, tech firms operate in highly competitive markets and have little to no market power in payment networks. Nonetheless, the report uses this claim regarding Big Tech’s alleged market power to justify imposing restrictions on the WhatsApp payment system. The irony, of course, is that by moving to prohibit the WhatsApp payment service shortly before the rollout of Pix, the BCB unfairly inhibited competition, effectively giving Pix a monopoly on RTP with the full support of the government. 

In acting as both a supplier of a payment service and the regulator of payment service providers, the BCB has a massive conflict of interest. Indeed, the BIS itself has recommended that, in cases where such conflicts might exist, it is good practice to ensure that the regulator is clearly separated from the supplier. Pix, in contrast, was developed and promoted by the same part of the bank as the payments regulator. 

Finally, the BIS report also fails to address significant security issues associated with Pix, including a dramatic rise in the number of “lightning kidnappings” in which hostages were forced to send funds to Pix addresses. 

The U.S. economy survived the COVID-19 pandemic and associated government-imposed business shutdowns with a variety of innovations that facilitated online shopping, contactless payments, and reduced use and handling of cash, a known vector of disease transmission.

While many of these innovations were new, they would have been impossible but for their reliance on an established and ubiquitous technological infrastructure: the global credit and debit-card payments system. Not only did consumers prefer to use plastic instead of cash, the number of merchants going completely “cashless” quadrupled in the first two months of the pandemic alone. From food delivery to online shopping, many small businesses were able to survive largely because of payment cards.

But there are costs to maintain the global payment-card network that processes billions of transactions daily, and those costs are higher for online payments, which present elevated fraud and security risks. As a result, while the boom in online shopping over this past year kept many retailers and service providers afloat, that hasn’t prevented them from grousing about their increased card-processing costs.

So it is that retailers are now lobbying Washington to impose new regulations on payment-card markets designed to force down the fees they pay for accepting debit and credit cards. Called interchange fees, these fees are charged by banks that issue debit cards on each transaction, and they are part of a complex process that connects banks, card networks, merchants, and consumers.

Fig. 1: A basic illustration of the 3- and 4-party payment-processing networks that underlie the use of credit cards.

Regulation II—a provision of 2010’s Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act commonly known as the “Durbin amendment,” after its primary sponsor, Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.)—placed price controls on interchange fees for debit cards issued by larger banks and credit unions (those with more than $10 billion in assets). It required all debit-card issuers to offer multiple networks for “routing” and processing card transactions. Merchants now want to expand these routing provisions to credit cards, as well. The consequences for consumers, especially low-income consumers, would be disastrous.

The price controls imposed by the Durbin amendment have led to a 52% decrease in the average per-transaction interchange fee, resulting in billions of dollars in revenue losses for covered depositories. But banks and credit unions have passed on these losses to consumers in the form of fewer free checking accounts, higher fees, and higher monthly minimums required to avoid those fees.

One empirical study found that the share of covered banks offering free checking accounts fell from 60% to 20%, the average monthly checking accounts fees increased from $4.34 to $7.44, and the minimum account balance required to avoid those fees increased by roughly 25%. Another study found that fees charged by covered institutions were 15% higher than they would have been absent the price regulation; those increases offset about 90% of the depositories’ lost revenue. Banks and credit unions also largely eliminated cash-back and other rewards on debit cards.

In fact, those who have been most harmed by the Durbin amendment’s consequences have been low-income consumers. Middle-class families hardly noticed the higher minimum balance requirements, or used their credit cards more often to offset the disappearance of debit-card rewards. Those with the smallest checking account balances, however, suffered the most from reduced availability of free banking and higher monthly maintenance and other fees. Priced out of the banking system, as many as 1 million people might have lost bank accounts in the wake of the Durbin amendment, forcing them to turn to such alternatives as prepaid cards, payday lenders, and pawn shops to make ends meet. Lacking bank accounts, these needy families weren’t even able to easily access their much-needed government stimulus funds at the onset of the pandemic without paying fees to alternative financial services providers.

In exchange for higher bank fees and reduced benefits, merchants promised lower prices at the pump and register. This has not been the case. Scholarship since  implementation of the Federal Reserve’s rule shows that whatever benefits have been gained have gone to merchants, with little pass-through to consumers. For instance, one study found that covered banks had their interchange revenue drop by 25%, but little evidence of a corresponding drop in prices from merchants.

Another study found that the benefits and costs to merchants have been unevenly distributed, with retailers who sell large-ticket items receiving a windfall, while those specializing in small-ticket items have often faced higher effective rates. Discounts previously offered to smaller merchants have been eliminated to offset reduced revenues from big-box stores. According to a 2014 Federal Reserve study, when acceptance fees increased, merchants hiked retail prices; but when fees were reduced, merchants pocketed the windfall.

Moreover, while the Durbin amendment’s proponents claimed it would only apply to big banks, the provisions that determine how transactions are routed on the payment networks apply to cards issued by credit unions and community banks, as well. As a result, smaller players have also seen average interchange fees beaten down, reducing this revenue stream even as they have been forced to cope with higher regulatory costs imposed by Dodd-Frank. Extending the Durbin amendment’s routing provisions to credit cards would further drive down interchange-fee revenue, creating the same negative spiral of higher consumer fees and reduced benefits that the original Durbin amendment spawned for debit cards.

More fundamentally, merchants believe it is their decision—not yours—as to which network will route your transaction. You may prefer Visa or Mastercard because of your confidence in their investments in security and anti-fraud detection, but later discover that the merchant has routed your transaction through a processor you’ve never heard of, simply because that network is cheaper for the merchant.

The resilience of the U.S. economy during this horrible viral contagion is due, in part, to the ubiquitous access of American families to credit and debit cards. That system has proved its mettle this past year, seamlessly adapting to the sudden shift to electronic payments. Yet, in the wake of this American success story, politicians and regulators, egged on by powerful special interests, instead want to meddle with this system just so big-box retailers can transfer their costs onto American families and small banks. As the economy and public health recovers, Congress and regulators should resist the impulse to impose new financial harm on working-class families.

Canada’s large merchants have called on the government to impose price controls on interchange fees, claiming this would benefit not only merchants but also consumers. But experience elsewhere contradicts this claim.

In a recently released Macdonald Laurier Institute report, Julian Morris, Geoffrey A. Manne, Ian Lee, and Todd J. Zywicki detail how price controls on credit card interchange fees would result in reduced reward earnings and higher annual fees on credit cards, with adverse effects on consumers, many merchants and the economy as a whole.

This study draws on the experience with fee caps imposed in other jurisdictions, highlighting in particular the effects in Australia, where interchange fees were capped in 2003. There, the caps resulted in a significant decrease in the rewards earned per dollar spent and an increase in annual card fees. If similar restrictions were imposed in Canada, resulting in a 40 percent reduction in interchange fees, the authors of the report anticipate that:

  1. On average, each adult Canadian would be worse off to the tune of between $89 and $250 per year due to a loss of rewards and increase in annual card fees:
    1. For an individual or household earning $40,000, the net loss would be $66 to $187; and
    2. for an individual or household earning $90,000, the net loss would be $199 to $562.
  2. Spending at merchants in aggregate would decline by between $1.6 billion and $4.7 billion, resulting in a net loss to merchants of between $1.6 billion and $2.8 billion.
  3. GDP would fall by between 0.12 percent and 0.19 percent per year.
  4. Federal government revenue would fall by between 0.14 percent and 0.40 percent.

Moreover, tighter fee caps would “have a more dramatic negative effect on middle class households and the economy as a whole.”

You can read the full report here.

by Geoffrey A. Manne, Joshua D. Wright and Todd J. Zywicki

Cross-posted at Business in the Beltway (at Forbes.com) and The Volokh Conspiracy.

In a recent commentary at Forbes.com, former Clinton administration economist Robert Shapiro argues that some 250,000 jobs would be created, and consumers would save $27 billion annually, by reducing the interchange fee charged to merchants for transactions made by consumers using credit and debit cards.  If true, these are some incredible numbers.

But incredible is indeed the correct characterization for his calculations.  Shapiro’s claims, based on a recent study he co-authored, rest on tendentious accounting, questionable assumptions, and—most crucially—a misunderstanding of the economics of interchange fees.  Political price caps on interchange fees won’t help the economy or create jobs—but they will make consumers poorer.

First, Shapiro estimates the employment impact of a redistribution of fees using the same stimulus multiplier that the Obama administration uses to tout the effect of its stimulus package.  But it is completely inappropriate to simply “plug in” the multiplier for government stimulus to calculate the effect of a reduction of interchange fees —unless the interchange fees currently paid to banks somehow simply disappear from the economy, contributing nothing to job creation, lowering the cost of capital, or increasing access to credit.  Even assuming that some portion of the fees are pure profit for card issuers, those profits must be paid out to shareholders or employees, invested, or used to bolster bank balance sheets (which provides capital for lending).  So, unlike the stimulus, this is at best merely a politically-mandated wealth (and employment) redistribution from card issuers to merchants, and any calculation of apparent economic gain must be offset by a similar calculation of loss on the other side.  Having ignored this offset, Shapiro’s conclusions are completely untenable.

But Shapiro also misunderstands the economics of payment card networks and the role of the interchange fee within them.  For example, Shapiro estimates that 70% of merchant savings from reduced interchange fees would be passed on to consumers in the form of lower retail prices.  But that is pure speculation.  In Australia, where regulators imposed price controls on interchange in 2003, fees paid by merchants have fallen but consumers have seen no reduction in the prices that they pay.  And where merchants have been permitted to impose surcharges on credit users, the surcharge can, and often does, substantially exceed the interchange fee cost.  It is not for nothing that merchants have spent millions trying to push interchange fee regulation through Congress.

In addition, Shapiro suggests that interchange fees are excessive in light of the “transaction and processing costs of using credit and debit cards.”  But his estimation of these costs is dramatically off-base.  Not only does he appear to exclude the cost of the delay between the time merchants receive payment (almost immediately) and when consumers pay their bills (at the end of a billing cycle), he ignores what may be the most significant single cost of consumer credit operations (and corresponding benefit to merchants): the cost of credit loss. Continue Reading…

iclelogoOver at the International Center for Law and Economics website we’ve posted a link to a pdf e-book version of the collected content (including both posts and comments) from our recent “Interchange Fees and the Law and Economics of Credit Cards” symposium.  Head on over and download a copy if you’re interested in a dead tree version of the symposium.