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

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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