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Retailers, banks battle over credit-card fees

Lawmakers weigh legislation allowing them to negotiate fees.

By Sarah More McCannCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / September 8, 2008

2 percent: That's the average fee banks charge merchants every time a customer swipes a credit card. Retailers and other groups say those fees burden those least able to pay.

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Sometimes those hurt most by credit cards don't even own one.

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At least that's the conclusion from an unusual alliance of merchants and consumer advocates fighting against what they say is an unfair, nonnegotiable fee charged by banks that issue credit cards.

They're supporting congressional efforts to establish a negotiation process to set interchange fees, a processing fee that they say currently fattens bankers' wallets and subsidizes credit-card rewards programs. Currently, credit-card issuing banks set these fees. Merchants have no say, and if they wish to accept credit-card payments, they must either raise prices or absorb the fee themselves.

As a result, advocates say, consumers often wind up paying more for goods and services. And the unbanked – those who lack credit cards with rewards benefits, such as frequent-flyer miles – are the hardest hit.

"The problem with the interchange fee is the have-nots: They're cross-subsidizing the miles of people who go on a ski vacation," says Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for U.S. PIRG, the Washington-based federation for state public interest research groups.

Credit-card companies dispute arguments that interchange fees are burdensome and question who will benefit from legislation. Interfering with the free market, they say, may increase merchants' profits, while reducing available credit and rewards programs for consumers – without any guarantee of lower prices.

"Retailers pay approximately two pennies on the dollar to accept credit and debit payments. This rate has stayed fairly constant in the past decade – and in fact has decreased in the gas segment. In exchange, retailers see increased revenue, guaranteed and fast payment, and significant fraud protections," Trish Wexler, spokeswoman for the Electronic Payments Coalition, a group that includes payment-card networks, financial-services firms, and financial services trade associations, writes in an e-mail.

Congress still contemplating

Whether legislators will approve of congressional oversight of a fee-negotiation process remains speculative. The Credit Card Fair Fee Act of 2008, approved by the House Judiciary Committee this summer, would enable merchants to collectively negotiate fees with providers who have "substantial market power." If an agreement is not reached, a panel of judges from the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice Antitrust Division would oversee binding arbitration.

The bill has also been introduced in the Senate, and comes on the heels of antitrust lawsuits as well as other legislation advocating more transparency in credit-card rates and billing procedures.

"It sends a serious message to Wall Street that 'you're wrong,' says Mr. Mierzwinski.

Interchange fees have become increasingly important to credit-card companies and their issuing banks, says J. Craig Shearman, vice president of government affairs for the National Retail Foundation. The NRF estimates that interchange fees will reach $48 billion this year, an amount that has tripled since 2001, mainly due to increased credit and signature debit-card use.

The fee, which kicks in every time customers swipe their credit cards or sign for a debit-card purchase, hovers around 2 percent of the price paid. (Debit purchases that require shopper to enter a PIN number incur other, smaller fees.). Rates are often lower for high-volume stores, and the interchange fee applied to a rewards card is usually higher than cards without such benefits.

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