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The economics of interchange fees and their regulation : an overview

  • David S. Evans
  • Richard Schmalensee

This essay surveys the economic literature on interchange fees and the debate over whether interchange should be regulated and, if so, how. We consider, first, the operation of unitary payment systems, like American Express, in the context of the recent economic literature on two-sided markets, in which businesses cater to two interdependent groups of customers. The main focus is on the determination of price structure. We then discuss the basic economics of multi-party payment systems and the role of interchange in the operation of such systems under some standard, though unrealistic, simplifying assumptions. The key point of this discussion is that the interchange fee is not an ordinary price; its most direct effect is on price structure, not price level. We then examine the implications for privately determined interchange fees of some of the relevant market imperfections that have been discussed in the economic literature. While some studies suggest that privately determined interchange fees are inefficiently high, others point to fees being inefficiently low. Moreover, there is a consensus among economists that, as a matter of theory, it is not possible to arrive, except by happenstance, at the socially optimal interchange fee through any regulatory system that considers only costs. This distinguishes the market imperfections at issue here for multi-party systems from the more familiar area of public utility regulation, where setting price equal to marginal cost is theoretically ideal. Next, we consider the issues facing policy makers. Since there is so much uncertainty about the relation between privately and socially optimal interchange fees, the outcome of a policy debate can depend critically on who bears the burden of proof under whatever set of institutions and laws the deliberation takes place. There is no apparent basis in today's economics - at a theoretical or empirical level - for concluding that it is generally possible to improve social welfare by

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Article provided by Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in its journal Proceedings – Payments System Research Conferences.

Volume (Year): (2005)
Issue (Month): May ()
Pages: 73-120

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Handle: RePEc:fip:fedkpc:y:2005:i:may:p:73-120
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