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Do U.S. consumers really benefit from payment card rewards?


  • Fumiko Hayashi


Payment card rewards programs have become increasingly popular in the United States. But do consumers really benefit from rewards? In the United States, rewards are paid for primarily by the fees charged to merchants, and merchants may pass on the fees to consumers as higher retail prices. Further, some regulators and analysts claim that rewards may send consumers distorted price signals, which in turn may lead consumers to choose payment methods that are less efficient to society. ; Card networks and merchants have taken opposing sides in the rewards debate. Card networks claim their fee structures, including rewards, are crucial to achieving the right balance between merchant acceptance and consumer usage of their cards. Rewards can also reduce the total costs to society by inducing more consumers to switch from costly payment methods, such as checks, to less costly payment cards. Merchants benefit as well, they claim, because rewards card users make higher-value transactions than other consumers. Finally, more generous rewards are even more beneficial to consumers because they receive more as they make more card transactions. ; Merchants, on the other hand, claim they pay for the rewards through their fees to card issuers. They argue that competitive pressures and customer expectations prevent them from rejecting cards even though the fees outweigh their benefits. They reject the idea that accepting rewards cards is profitable despite the higher fees. Instead, they argue that customers with rewards cards spend more than those without rewards cards simply because their incomes are higher—not because they receive more rewards. Finally, they argue that more generous rewards actually harm consumers, because higher fees to merchants lead to higher prices for goods and services. ; Hayashi seeks to provide insight into these issues by considering whether current rewards programs benefit consumers and society. While definitive answers await further data, the analysis in this article suggests that the currently provided payment card rewards programs, especially credit card rewards programs, are not likely to be efficient. Further, rewards may potentially be too generous, lowering overall consumer welfare.

Suggested Citation

  • Fumiko Hayashi, 2009. "Do U.S. consumers really benefit from payment card rewards?," Economic Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, issue Q I, pages 37-63.
  • Handle: RePEc:fip:fedker:y:2009:i:qi:p:37-63:n:v.94no.1

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Garcia-Swartz Daniel D. & Hahn Robert W. & Layne-Farrar Anne, 2006. "The Move Toward a Cashless Society: A Closer Look at Payment Instrument Economics," Review of Network Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 5(2), pages 1-24, June.
    2. Jean‐Charles Rochet & Jean Tirole, 2006. "Two‐sided markets: a progress report," RAND Journal of Economics, RAND Corporation, vol. 37(3), pages 645-667, September.
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    5. Ching, Andrew T. & Hayashi, Fumiko, 2010. "Payment card rewards programs and consumer payment choice," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 34(8), pages 1773-1787, August.
    6. Humphrey, David & Willesson, Magnus & Bergendahl, Goran & Lindblom, Ted, 2006. "Benefits from a changing payment technology in European banking," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 30(6), pages 1631-1652, June.
    7. Garcia-Swartz Daniel D. & Hahn Robert W. & Layne-Farrar Anne, 2006. "The Move Toward a Cashless Society: Calculating the Costs and Benefits," Review of Network Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 5(2), pages 1-30, June.
    8. Terri Bradford, 2008. "Developments in interchange fees in the United States and abroad," Payments System Research Briefing, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, issue Apr.
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    Cited by:

    1. Fumiko Hayashi, 2013. "The new debit card regulations: effects on merchants, consumers, and payments system efficiency," Economic Review, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, issue Q I, pages 89-118.
    2. Fumiko Hayashi, 2008. "The economics of payment card fee structure: what is the optimal balance between merchant fee and payment card rewards?," Research Working Paper RWP 08-06, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
    3. Fumiko Hayashi, 2008. "The economics of payment card fee structure: policy considerations of payment card rewards," Research Working Paper RWP 08-08, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
    4. Arango, Carlos & Huynh, Kim P. & Sabetti, Leonard, 2015. "Consumer payment choice: Merchant card acceptance versus pricing incentives," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 55(C), pages 130-141.
    5. Oz Shy & Zhu Wang, 2011. "Why Do Payment Card Networks Charge Proportional Fees?," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 101(4), pages 1575-1590, June.

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