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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.

James Van Dyke is President and Founder of Javelin Strategy and Research.

I feel that at least two important issues are being left out of the raging controversy over the cost of interchange. (At this point my readers are probably deciding if I’ll follow with a pro-merchant or pro-bank POV…but guess what: here comes one of each to make my point that we’re being a bit simplistic in this debate!).

Point one: card fees replace other costly forms of payments, and this must be included in any policy discussion. Previous Javelin research of several hundred merchants found that total costs for handling checks and cash are often considered to be as high as those for cards. Cash comes with risk of employee fraud, and may prevent consumer sales for those without current access to paper or cash money. Every check is an incident of fraud waiting to happen, as these antiquated IOU instuments are essentially dead or dying in every country other than the U.S. Checks invite criminals to follow the simple methods documented by Frank Abagnale of “Catch Me If You Can” fame.

Point two: Any discussion over cost of interchange should include a review of who pays for fraud. Between merchants and banks, if there is a disparity over who handles the brunt of fraud (the recent study we did for LexisNexis found that merchants incur 90% of direct fraud cost) brings up issues of incentives. Simply put, if you can pass a cost on to someone else your incentive for minimizing the cost may be reduced.

And now that I’ve said something to anger both merchants and bankers, I’ll eagerly await the responses…