The EU caps fees on Visa and MasterCard

A certain feeling of déjà vue.

With a certain feeling of déjà vue, the European Commission is again gunning for the major card issuers.

The EC has been trying to sort out alleged anti-competitive behaviour by MasterCard and its larger rival Visa since 2007. It is all to do with interchange fees – the charges paid by retailers on card transactions. Merchants argue that card companies unfairly overcharge them; in the other corner, the card companies contend that the fees are justified by the services they offer in return, such as easy payment collection.

The EC seems to be proposing that interchange fees be capped at 0.2 per cent for debit card payments and 0.3 per cent for credit cards. According to the EC, the proposed cap will cut total debit card fees across the EU to around €2.5bn from €4.8bn; credit card fees will fall to €3.5bn from an estimated €5.7bn once the cap is in place.

As consumers, I suspect we will barely notice any difference. MasterCard and Visa Europe have already capped their fees. I would wager – not huge sums but perhaps the loose change in my pocket – that we may expect to hear about the experience in Australia when the regulators capped interchange fees.

There was a well publicized survey in Australia – sponsored by MasterCard by the way – that concluded that once the government regulated interchange fees it was impossible to determine whether merchants passed on price reductions to customers.

I expect that we may also hear of gloomy predictions that a cap on interchange fees will inevitably lead to increased reliance on annual cardholder fees. The argument will be that card issuers, faced with reduced income from one source, will look for other ways to make good that loss. Expect also to hear that loyalty and rewards programmes may become a thing of the past due to the EU’s meddling.

The market barely batted an eyelid at todays news with MasterCard shares inching down by 1 per cent today. The issuers continue to continue to win new customers and expand their range of innovative services and products. For example, MasterCard has introduced mobile apps that are able to reduce expense accounting overheads and improve expense tracking for businesses. Major contract wins include one from the government of Canada that will convert its travel expense programme to MasterCard.

It is also among the biggest financial services sponsors of sports and the arts. If you watch any of the coverage of the Open Golf championship teeing off tomorrow, you will do well to avoid seeing the MasterCard logo as a constant presence on the screen.

Visa and MasterCard are two of the strongest performing financial services firms and are extremely well placed to enjoy further earnings and profits growth. Interchange fees will never be popular with the consumer press. They are however here to stay.

Photograph: Getty Images

Douglas Blakey is the editor of Retail Banker International

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What is the EU customs union and will Brexit make us leave?

International trade secretary Liam Fox's job makes more sense if we leave the customs union. 

Brexiteers and Remoaners alike have spent the winter months talking of leaving the "customs union", and how this should be weighed up against the benefits of controlling immigration. But what does it actually mean, and how is it different from the EU single market?

Imagine a medieval town, with a busy marketplace where traders are buying and selling wares. Now imagine that the town is also protected by a city wall, with guards ready to slap charges on any outside traders who want to come in. That's how the customs union works.  

In essence, a customs union is an agreement between countries not to impose tariffs on imports from within the club, and at the same time impose common tariffs on goods coming in from outsiders. In other words, the countries decide to trade collectively with each other, and bargain collectively with everyone else. 

The EU isn't the only customs union, or even the first in Europe. In the 19th century, German-speaking states organised the Zollverein, or German Customs Union, which in turn paved the way for the unification of Germany. Other customs unions today include the Eurasian Economic Union of central Asian states and Russia. The EU also has a customs union with Turkey.

What is special about the EU customs union is the level of co-operation, with member states sharing commercial policies, and the size. So how would leaving it affect the UK post-Brexit?

The EU customs union in practice

The EU, acting on behalf of the UK and other member states, has negotiated trade deals with countries around the world which take years to complete. The EU is still mired in talks to try to pull off the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the US, and a similar EU-Japan trade deal. These two deals alone would cover a third of all EU trade.

The point of these deals is to make it easier for the EU's exporters to sell abroad, keep imports relatively cheap and at the same time protect the member states' own businesses and consumers as much as possible. 

The rules of the customs union require member states to let the EU negotiate on their behalf, rather than trying to cut their own deals. In theory, if the UK walks away from the customs union, we walk away from all these trade deals, but we also get a chance to strike our own. 

What are the UK's options?

The UK could perhaps come to an agreement with the EU where it continues to remain inside the customs union. But some analysts believe that door has already shut. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as Prime Minister was to appoint Liam Fox, the Brexiteer, as the secretary of state for international trade. Why would she appoint him, so the logic goes, if there were no international trade deals to talk about? And Fox can only do this if the UK is outside the customs union. 

(Conversely, former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg argues May will realise the customs union is too valuable and Fox will be gone within two years).

Fox has himself said the UK should leave the customs union but later seemed to backtrack, saying it is "important to have continuity in trade".

If the UK does leave the customs union, it will have the freedom to negotiate, but will it fare better or worse than the EU bloc?

On the one hand, the UK, as a single voice, can make speedy decisions, whereas the EU has a lengthy consultative process (the Belgian region of Wallonia recently blocked the entire EU-Canada trade deal). Incoming US President Donald Trump has already said he will try to come to a deal quickly

On the other, the UK economy is far smaller, and trade negotiators may discover they have far less leverage acting alone. 

Unintended consequences

There is also the question of the UK’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, which is currently governed by its membership of the customs union. According to the Institute for Government: “Many countries will want to be clear about the UK’s membership of the WTO before they open negotiations.”

And then there is the question of policing trade outside of the customs union. For example, if it was significantly cheaper to import goods from China into Ireland, a customs union member, than Northern Ireland, a smuggling network might emerge.

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.