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

Listed author(s):
  • 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.

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Article provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in its journal Economic Review.

Volume (Year): (2009)
Issue (Month): Q I ()
Pages: 37-63

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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedker:y:2009:i:qi:p:37-63:n:v.94no.1
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  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.
  3. Hayashi Fumiko, 2006. "A Puzzle of Card Payment Pricing: Why Are Merchants Still Accepting Card Payments?," Review of Network Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 5(1), pages 1-31, March.
  4. Julian Wright, 2004. "The Determinants of Optimal Interchange Fees in Payment Systems," Journal of Industrial Economics, Wiley Blackwell, vol. 52(1), pages 1-26, March.
  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.
  9. Simon John, 2005. "Payment Systems Are Different: Shouldn't Their Regulation Be Too?," Review of Network Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 4(4), pages 1-20, December.
  10. Jean-Charles Rochet & Jean Tirole, 2002. "Cooperation Among Competitors: Some Economics Of Payment Card Associations," RAND Journal of Economics, The RAND Corporation, vol. 33(4), pages 549-570, Winter.
  11. Sujit Chakravorti & William R. Emmons, 2001. "Who pays for credit cards?," Occasional Paper; Emerging Payments EPS-2001-1, Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago.
  12. National Bank of Belgium, 2006. "Costs, advantages and drawbacks of the various means of payment," Economic Review, National Bank of Belgium, issue i, pages 41-47, June.
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