Canada Credit Card Industry Makes Poorer Customers Pay For Wealthier Ones: Competition Bureau

CP  |  By Posted: 05/08/2012 11:29 am Updated: 05/08/2012 8:04 pm

OTTAWA - Canada's credit card system is a "perverse" place where shoppers who pay with cash or debit subsidize purchases made with credit cards, the Competition Bureau argued Tuesday in its opening salvo against Visa and MasterCard.

That's because Canadian merchants pay among the highest fees in the world for accepting credit cards and pass on the costs consumers, the bureau's lead counsel said in his opening to a tribunal charged with ruling on credit card practices.

Presenting the case for the competition commissioner, Kent Thomson argued that restrictive contracts put in place by Visa and MasterCard allow the two credit card companies — which represent 92 per cent of the market — to essentially dictate terms to merchants.

"Most Canadians are unaware of the high cost of fees" that are part and parcel of credit card usage, he said. "And these are not borne by merchants alone, they are reflected in higher prices paid by customers."

The much-awaited case before a tribunal headed by Justice Michael Phelan of the Federal Court of Canada involves high stakes.

As Thomson asserted, Visa and MasterCard charged merchants about $5 billion in fees on about $320 billion in purchases in 2011, charges that merchants recoup through higher consumer prices.

The pay-off for Canadians — in theory at least — is lower consumer prices if the case succeeds.

The tribunal has the power to force credit card companies to change their method of operations, but it cannot levy a monetary penalty in the case.

But commissioner Melanie Aitken, who launched the quasi-judicial action in response to complaints from merchants, has a high bar to meet and faces a formidable united front from some of the richest interests in corporate Canada.

Lawyers representing Visa, MasterCard, the Canadian Bar Association and TD Bank lined up to respond to the charges Tuesday, calling into question the entire basis of the proceedings.

The fees represent just another input cost for merchants who can choose to pass it on to customers or not, they responded. And merchants derive a value for those fees, including customers who may not be in a position to buy unless they could charge the purchase.

"The commissioner's theory fails as a matter of fact and economics," said Robert Kwinter, counsel for Visa, the country's biggest credit card company.

"If merchants do not want non-credit users to bear the costs of Visa card acceptance, they can give those customers a discount for using another form of payment, or they don't have to accept Visa cards at all."

The case against the credit card firms boils down to whether they are in contravention of the Competition Act in placing certain restrictions on merchants that accept their cards for payment.

Those fees — ranging from 1.5 to 3.0 per cent of the value of customer purchases — are about twice the rate credit card firms charge merchants in Australia, New Zealand and many parts of Europe, but slightly below the U.S. average.

Thomson noted the fees on the average credit card is about 50 times higher than that of debit cards, which is about 12 cents per purchase.

If credit card firms did not explicitly forbid merchants from discriminating between standard and higher cost premium cards, or to add a surcharge for using premium cards — fees would come down, he argued.

That's because otherwise more customers would opt for the less expensive payment option, he said.

He gave the example of a typical $200 barbecue. The merchant must pay about $5 in fees if the customer uses a credit card and only about 12 cents if a debit card is used.

The current system encourages consumers to use premium cards in order to collect rewards, such as Air Miles, without incurring the costs associated with those cards.

Perversely, he said, credit card companies are rewarded for charging more, and poorer shoppers are penalized by paying higher consumer prices for the benefit of premium card holders.

In a normal competitive market, the merchant would be permitted to charge customers different prices depending on their costs associated with the method of payment.

"But none of this is possible in this country because of merchant restrictions put in place by Visa and MasterCard," he said. "These restrictions distort the normal competitive process."

Lawyers for the credit companies said the evidence in the case, which is expected to run until late June, will show that the fees are competitive and that merchants accept credit cards not because they have no choice but because they are full value for the cost.

Bankers' counsel Mahmud Jamal told the tribunal the main reason for the complaint is that merchants simply want to create a "new profit centre" by charging more on certain credit cards.

Eliminating the no-surcharge rule, he said, "would be bad for the (card) issuing body, bad for customer choice and ultimately bad for consumers. It will, however, be good for merchants."

The tribunal has scheduled 21 days of hearings. The parties said they will call 31 witnesses, including merchants, economists and industry leaders.

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  • Canadian Household Debt By Region

  • 6. Atlantic Canada: $69,300

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 5. Quebec: $78,900

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 4. Manitoba & Saskatchewan: $84,900

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 3. Ontario: $124,700

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 2. British Columbia: $155,500

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

  • 1. Alberta: $157,700

    Number represents the average among those households that carry debt. Source: <a href="http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2012002/article/11636-eng.pdf" target="_hplink">Statistics Canada</a>

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    THE 10 COUNTRIES DEEPEST IN DEBT

  • 10. United Kingdom

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 80.9 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $1.99 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $35,860 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $2.46 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 8.4 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aaa Although the UK has one of the largest debt-to-GDP ratios among developed nations, it has managed to keep its economy relatively stable. The UK is not part of the eurozone and has its own independent central bank. The UK's independence has helped protect it from being engulfed in the European debt crisis. Government bond yields have remained low. The country also has retained its Aaa credit rating, reflecting its secure financial standing. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 9. Germany

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 81.8 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $2.79 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $37,591 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $3.56 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 5.5 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aaa As the largest economy and financial stronghold of the EU, Germany has the most interest in maintaining debt stability for itself and the entire eurozone. In 2010, when Greece was on the verge of defaulting on its debt, the IMF and EU were forced to implement a 45 billion euro bailout package. A good portion of the bill was footed by Germany. The country has a perfect credit rating and an unemployment rate of just 5.5 percent, one of the lowest in Europe. Despite its relatively strong economy, Germany will have one of the largest debt-to-GDP ratios among developed nations of 81.8 percent, according to Moody's projections. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 8. France

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 85.4 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $2.26 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $33,820 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $2.76 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 9.9 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aaa France is the third-biggest economy in the EU, with a GDP of $2.76 trillion, just shy of the UK's $2.46 trillion. In January, after being long-considered one of the more economically stable countries, Standard & Poor's downgraded French sovereign debt from a perfect AAA to AA+. This came at the same time eight other euro nations, including Spain, Portugal and Italy, were also downgraded. S&P's action represented a serious blow to the government, which had been claiming its economy as stable as the UK's. Moody's still rates the country at Aaa, the highest rating, but changed the country's outlook to negative on Monday. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 7. United States

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 85.5 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $12.8 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $47,184 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $15.13 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 8.3 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aaa U.S. government debt in 2001 was estimated at 45.6 percent of total GDP. By 2011, after a decade of increased government spending, U.S. debt was 85.5 percent of GDP. In 2001, U.S. government expenditure as a percent of GDP was 33.1 percent. By 2010, is was 39.1 percent. In 2005, U.S. debt was $6.4 trillion. By 2011, U.S. debt has doubled to $12.8 trillion, according to Moody's estimates. While Moody's still rates the U.S. at a perfect Aaa, last August Standard & Poor's downgraded the country from AAA to AA+. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 6. Belgium

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 97.2 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $479 billion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $37,448 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $514 billion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 7.2 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aa1 Belgium's public debt-to-GDP ratio peaked in 1993 at about 135 percent, but was subsequently reduced to about 84 percent by 2007. In just four years, the ratio has risen to nearly 95 percent. In December 2011, Moody's downgraded Belgium's local and foreign currency government bonds from Aa1 to Aa3. In its explanation of the downgrade, the rating agency cited "the growing risk to economic growth created by the need for tax hikes or spending cuts." In January of this year, the country was forced to make about $1.3 billion in spending cuts, according to The Financial Times, to avoid failing "to meet new European Union fiscal rules designed to prevent a repeat of the eurozone debt crisis." <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 5. Portugal

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 101.6 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $257 billion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $25,575 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $239 billion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 13.6 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Ba3 Portugal suffered greatly from the global recession -- more than many other countries -- partly because of its low GDP per capita. In 2011, the country received a $104 billion bailout from the EU and the IMF due to its large budget deficit and growing public debt. The Portuguese government now "plans to trim the budget deficit from 9.8 percent of gross domestic product in 2010 to 4.5 percent in 2012 and to the EU ceiling of 3 percent in 2013," according Business Week. The country's debt was downgraded to junk status by Moody's in July 2011 and downgraded again to Ba3 on Monday. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 4. Ireland

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 108.1 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $225 billion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $39,727 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $217 billion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 14.5 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Ba1 Ireland was once the healthiest economy in the EU. In the early 2000s, it had the lowest unemployment rate of any developed industrial country. During that time, nominal GDP was growing at an average rate of roughly 10 percent each year. However, when the global economic recession hit, Ireland's economy began contracting rapidly. In 2006, the Irish government had a budget surplus of 2.9 percent of GDP. In 2010, it accrued a staggering deficit of 32.4 percent of GDP. Since 2001, Ireland's debt has increased more than 500 percent. Moody's estimates that the country's general government debt was $224 billion, well more than its GDP of $216 billion. Moody's rates Ireland's sovereign debt at Ba1, or junk status. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

  • 3. Italy

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  • 1. Japan

    <strong>Debt as a percentage of GDP:</strong> 233.1 percent <strong>General government debt:</strong> $13.7 trillion <strong>GDP per capita (PPP):</strong> $33,994 <strong>Nominal GDP:</strong> $5.88 trillion <strong>Unemployment rate:</strong> 4.6 percent <strong>Credit rating:</strong> Aa3 Japan's debt-to-GDP ratio of 233.1 percent is the highest among the world's developed nations by a large margin. Despite the country's massive debt, it has managed to avoid the type of economic distress affecting nations such as Greece and Portugal. This is largely due to Japan's healthy unemployment rate and population of domestic bondholders, who consistently fund Japanese government borrowing. Japanese vice minister Fumihiko Igarashi said in a speech in November 2011 that "95 percent of Japanese government bonds have been financed domestically so far, with only 5 percent held by foreigners." Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has proposed the doubling of Japan's 5 percent national sales tax by 2015 to help bring down the nation's debt. <a href="http://247wallst.com/2012/02/14/the-tencountries-deepest-in-debt/#ixzz1mSdyJAeo" target="_hplink">Read more at 24/7 Wall St.</a>

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