Punishing Rewards: How clamping down on credit card interchange fees can hurt the middle class


Over the past 20 years, credit cards have become an increasingly popular means of paying for goods and services in Canada. Today nearly 90 percent of Canadian adults own a credit card and approximately 65 percent of all point of sale payments are made using credit cards.

The rise of credit cards has been driven by the benefits that accompany their use, including convenience, security, insurance, and warranties on purchases. But arguably the biggest driver has been the rewards that cards offer, such as cash back, Air Miles or Aeroplan rewards, or merchant-specific rewards. About 80 percent of Canadians with credit cards have at least one card that offers rewards for use, and owners of credit cards with rewards say that the rewards are the primary reason they use their rewards card for purchases.

The benefits provided by credit cards are paid for by the issuing bank through a combination of annual fees charged to cardholders and transaction fees charged to merchants. In closed-loop three-party card systems (primarily American Express, as well as international cards issued by Discover), the payment card provider charges both merchants and consumers directly. In four-party card systems (Visa and Mastercard), card issuers charge cardholders directly but the fees from merchants come via the acquirer (such as a merchant’s bank), which charges merchants a service charge. The largest portion of the merchant service charge is the interchange fee, which is passed on to issuing banks.

In spite of the higher annual fees on cards with more benefits, the vast majority of consumers report that they receive more benefits from their cards than the cost of the fees they carry. Middle class consumers are the major beneficiaries of credit card rewards. A consumer or household earning $40k might expect annual rewards valued at $450, while paying fees of $75, providing a net bene t of $375. Meanwhile, a consumer or household earning $90k might expect benefits of about $1350 while paying $225 in fees, providing a net bene t of around $1125.

Merchants, however, are less happy with the higher interchange fees. Apparently assuming that all of the bene t of rewards cards accrues to users, while merchants bear the added interchange cost, these merchants say that the increase has negatively affected their profitability. Of note, however, the number of merchants who accept credit cards, after falling in the early 2000s, has increased in the past decade – and appears to have risen more rapidly following the introduction of more generous rewards cards, in spite of a rise in accompanying interchange fees.

Some merchant groups have, in fact, called for the government to impose caps on interchange fees; in February 2016, a private member’s bill was introduced in Parliament seeking to do just that.

Interchange fee caps, like other price controls, tend to have predictable effects: as a rule, they result in other prices increasing, leading to a redistribution, but not a reduction, in overall costs. Several other countries have introduced caps on interchange fees, including, of particular relevance, the caps introduced in Australia in 2003. These caps resulted in a significant increase in the annual fees charged to cardholders and a substantial reduction in the rate at which card use earned rewards.

Using data on and analysis of the effect of Australia’s interchange fee caps, combined with publicly available and proprietary data on Canadian credit card use, household income and expenditure, and other economic variables, the authors of this report modelled the likely effects of introducing a cap on interchange fees in Canada. They estimate that, were an interchange fee cap imposed here, it would have significant negative consequences for Canadian consumers and the Canadian economy as a whole. Specifically, they estimate that if interchange fees were forcibly reduced by 40 percent:

  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:a For an individual or household earning $40,000, the net loss would be $66 to $187; andb 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.

The authors estimate that a tighter cap on interchange fees would have a more dramatic negative effect on middle class households and the economy as a whole.

They also provide specific case studies for three typical middle class households, showing how a cap on interchange fees, along the lines of those imposed in Australia, would affect their household income and expenditure.

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