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…