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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital