On 15 July 2005, a group of seven large U.S. retailers sued Visa USA over a component of card acceptance fees known as interchange rates. The suit alleges that Visa engaged in price fixing and adopted rules that prevent merchants from negotiating lower rates. A similar class action lawsuit on behalf of smaller retailers was filed recently against Visa USA and MasterCard International.
As we anticipated, this is the second lawsuit filed by retailers against Visa concerning interchange fees. Unlike the initial suit, however, this one doesn't claim class action, and MasterCard is not listed as a defendant. We believe these differences stem from the fact that the large retailers in this suit (grocers and drugstore chains) don't benefit from the lower rates that Visa allegedly granted to other large retailers, such as Wal-Mart Stores. MasterCard reportedly hasn't struck similar merchant-specific deals. In June 2005, we predicted that at least two lawsuits would be launched in the next 12 months on behalf of U.S. retailers suing the card associations over interchange fees (0.7 probability).
Retailers have long criticized interchange fees; they claim the fees fail to reflect the costs that they incur. Moreover, retailers contend that they are forced to fund, via such fees, card issuers' consumer loyalty and marketing programs. The U.S. Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City documented this issue in May 2005 and offered two findings about market competition in the credit card system:
Despite these findings, however, the Federal Reserve lacks data from the card associations to determine whether the current system is indeed broken. This has prevented the Fed from recommending that government agencies intervene to lower the interchange rates.
Analytical Source: Avivah Litan, Gartner Research
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