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The Economics of Interchange Fees and Their Regulation: An Overview

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  • Evans, David
  • Schmalensee, Richard

Abstract

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 a noticeable reduction in privately set interchange fees. Thus, if antitrust or other regulators had to show that such intervention would improve welfare, they could not do so. This, again, is quite unlike public utility regulation or many areas of antitrust including, in particular, ordinary cartels. By the same token, there is no basis in economics for concluding that the privately set interchange fee is just right. Thus, if card associations had to bear the burden of proof - for example, to obtain a comfort or clearance letter from authorities for engaging in presumptively illegal coordinated behavior - it would be difficult for them to demonstrate that they set socially optimal fees. We take a pragmatic approach by suggesting two fact-based inquiries that we believe policymakers should undertake before intervening to affect interchange. First, policymakers should establish that there is a significant market failure that needs to be addressed. Second, policymakers should establish that it is possible to correct a serious market imperfection, assuming one exists, by whatever intervention they are considering (such as cost-based regulation of interchange fee levels) and thereby to increase social welfare significantly after taking into account other distortions that the intervention may create. We illustrate both of these points by examining the recent Australian experience.

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  • Evans, David & Schmalensee, Richard, 2005. "The Economics of Interchange Fees and Their Regulation: An Overview," Working papers 18181, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management.
  • Handle: RePEc:mit:sloanp:18181
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    Cited by:

    1. Bolt Wilko & Tieman Alexander F., 2006. "Social Welfare and Cost Recovery in Two-Sided Markets," Review of Network Economics, De Gruyter, vol. 5(1), pages 1-15, March.
    2. Stuart E. Weiner & Julian Wright, 2005. "Interchange fees in various countries : developments and determinants," Proceedings – Payments System Research Conferences, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, issue May, pages 5-49.
    3. Biliana Alexandrova-Kabadjova & Sara Gabriela Castellanos Pascacio & Alma L. García-Almanza, 2012. "The Adoption Process of Payment Cards -An Agent- Based Approach," Working Papers 2012-02, Banco de México.
    4. ?zlem Bedre-Defolie & Emilio Calvano, 2013. "Pricing Payment Cards," American Economic Journal: Microeconomics, American Economic Association, vol. 5(3), pages 206-231, August.
    5. Tobias Trütsch, 2014. "The Impact of Contactless Payment on Spending," International Journal of Economic Sciences, University of Economics, Prague, vol. 2014(4), pages 70-98.
    6. Fernandez, Pascual & Matias, Gustavo, 2013. "Regulation, competition and integration in electronic payments markets: the Spanish and European cases," MPRA Paper 53781, University Library of Munich, Germany.
    7. James J. McAndrews & Zhu Wang, 2006. "Microfoundations of two-sided markets: the payment card example," Payments System Research Working Paper PSR WP 06-01, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
    8. Monnet, Cyril & Roberds, William, 2008. "Optimal pricing of payment services," Journal of Monetary Economics, Elsevier, vol. 55(8), pages 1428-1440, November.
    9. Cyril Monnet & William Roberds, 2006. "Credit and the no-surcharge rule," FRB Atlanta Working Paper 2006-25, Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
    10. Tobias Truetsch, 2014. "The Impact of Contactless Payment on Spending," Proceedings of International Academic Conferences 0702228, International Institute of Social and Economic Sciences.
    11. Alexandrova-Kabadjova, Biliana & Negrín, José Luis, 2009. "What drives the network’s growth? An agent-based study of the payment card market," Working Paper Series 1143, European Central Bank.
    12. Cyril Monnet & William Roberds, 2007. "Optimal pricing of payment services when cash is an alternative," Working Papers 07-26, Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
    13. Krivosheya, Egor & Korolev, Andrew, 2016. "Benefits of the retail payments card market: Russian cardholders' evidence," Journal of Business Research, Elsevier, vol. 69(11), pages 5034-5039.
    14. Biliana Alexandrova-Kabadjova & Alma L. Garcia-Almanza & Sara G. Castellanos Pascacio, 2012. "El proceso de adopcion de tarjetas de pago: un enfoque basado en agentes," Working Papers 1214, BBVA Bank, Economic Research Department.
    15. Oz Shy, 2011. "A Short Survey of Network Economics," Review of Industrial Organization, Springer;The Industrial Organization Society, vol. 38(2), pages 119-149, March.
    16. Akin, Guzin Gulsun & Aysan, Ahmet Faruk & Borici, Denada & Yildiran, Levent, 2013. "Regulate one service, tame the entire market: Credit cards in Turkey," Journal of Banking & Finance, Elsevier, vol. 37(4), pages 1195-1204.
    17. G. Gulsun Akin & Ahmet Faruk Aysan & Denada Boriçi & Levent Yildiran, 2011. "The Role of Simultaneous Regulations of Credit Services and Payment Services on Competition," Working Papers 604, Economic Research Forum, revised 08 Jan 2011.
    18. Robin A. Prager & Mark D. Manuszak & Elizabeth K. Kiser & Ron Borzekowski, 2009. "Interchange fees and payment card networks: economics, industry developments, and policy issues," Finance and Economics Discussion Series 2009-23, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
    19. Kahn, Charles M. & Roberds, William, 2009. "Why pay? An introduction to payments economics," Journal of Financial Intermediation, Elsevier, vol. 18(1), pages 1-23, January.
    20. Patricia Guajardo F. & Sergio Rodríguez E., 2008. "Funcionamiento del Mercado Tarjetas de Crédito y Debate sobre Tarifas de Intercambio," Notas de Investigación Journal Economía Chilena (The Chilean Economy), Central Bank of Chile, vol. 11(1), pages 137-144, April.
    21. Boudreau, Kevin, 2006. "The Boundaries of the Platform: Vertical Integration and Economic Incentives in Mobile Computing," Working papers 30609, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Sloan School of Management.
    22. Michael L. Katz, 2005. "What do we know about interchange fees and what does it mean for public policy? : commentary on Evans and Schmalensee," Proceedings – Payments System Research Conferences, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, issue May, pages 121-137.

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