With the Capital One-Discover deal, credit holds all the cards

The Capital One/Discover deal will do nothing to fix our broken and predatory credit-card system.

Jared Nangle/The New York Times

A fight has commenced over Capital One’s effort to acquire Discover, a deal that would birth an enormous credit-card company rivaling Visa, Mastercard and American Express. The resulting competition could, in the short run, lower some costs to businesses and consumers. However, over the longer term, the merger would keep intact the broken and predatory system in which credit-card companies profit handsomely by rewarding our richest Americans and advantaging the biggest corporations.

Credit-card companies increasingly generate money via swipe fees, or the money merchants pay issuers every time a credit card is used. Total swipe fees rose 20 percent in 2022 to an estimated $160 billion a year nationally. The pandemic changed how we buy things, significantly increasing the share of transactions put on credit cards rather than conducted in cash, adding to the swipe fees merchants pay.

On top of this, a 2018 Supreme Court ruling effectively forces merchants to accept either every type of card — from, say, a basic Green Card to the Platinum Card — from an issuer like Amex or none of them. And even though fancier types of cards generally demand higher swipe fees, the ruling also barred merchants from incentivizing consumers to use the cheaper ones. These facts combine in a way that makes it even more appealing for Capital One, a giant credit-card issuer, to merge with Discover, which owns a payment system, and generate greater profits from credit cards, particularly higher-end reward cards.

Credit-card companies found they could command ever-greater swipe fees from merchants while at the same time offering their wealthiest consumers more deluxe credit cards that reward big spending with cash back, travel points, access to fancy airport lounges and the like — and then pass on the cost of those rewards to merchants. Merchants must then choose whether to accept and pay the higher swipe fee demanded by these platinum expensive cards or not take any from that card company. In our increasingly digital economy, most merchants have little alternative but to accept the pricey versions and to pay for the privilege. Naturally, merchants pass on their increased cost to all of their customers.

That’s how the rest of us, whether we pay with cash, a debit card or a middle-of-the-road credit card, wind up paying more — because we are subsidizing these rewards cards for whom only the wealthiest qualify. One study from economists at the Boston Federal Reserve estimated that the highest-income households profit over $1,000 a year tax-free from the payment system, adjusted for inflation.

Because swipe fees include a fixed cost in addition to a percentage of the total cost, small-dollar transactions are extremely expensive for merchants. My research found huge costs for such transactions as buying a cup of coffee or paying for a bus or subway ride. One year my oldest friend’s small coffee shop paid more in card processing costs than for coffee beans.

Big companies can leverage their resources to lower swipe fees, giving them a leg up. Starbucks stole a page from the credit-card playbook and built an app that gives consumers rewards on future purchases if they upload larger amounts of money from their credit cards, thus lowering the total fees Starbucks has to pay the credit-card companies for each swipe.

Some big businesses negotiate discounted swipe fees. Costco is the most aggressive; there have been reports that the big discount retailer’s contract with Citibank and Visa lowered its costs to 0.4 percent while a local dry cleaner may be paying closer to 3 percent.

The problem isn’t limited to nonwealthy consumers and small businesses: Parking meters that used to run on coins now rely on credit-card-powered apps, which charge transaction fees that can be over 20 percent, such as 45 cents on $2. Public transit agencies can lose 7 percent of the money they generate in fares in card-processing fees. A growing gap between what users pay and local agencies receive could stress budgets and require higher taxes, increased fees or reduced public services.

To fix the problem, Congress should legislatively correct the Supreme Court’s mistake. For starters, give merchants the power to reject the priciest credit cards, and let’s see if their users are willing to pay the true cost of their rewards. This solution ought to have some bipartisan support; the idea was strong enough politically to be supported by states as diverse as Ohio, Texas and Maryland. Bipartisan legislation to overturn a conservative Supreme Court ruling may sound like a pipe dream, but in payments policy we’ve seen a few examples such as the Durbin Amendment to what became the Dodd-Frank Act, which lowered debit interchange fees, received 64 votes (including 16 from Republicans) and made it into law.

Second, brave policymakers could start taxing reward points. The richer you are, the more likely you qualify for bigger rewards. Progressive taxation rates mean that exempting rewards from taxation makes them nearly four times as valuable to those in the top tax bracket as the bottom. Why is interest from my savings account taxed, but the cash back from card spending not? Once upon a time the value of frequent flier miles was hard to quantify; now the Points Guy has it down.

Finally, we could require all merchants have access to the same swipe-fee pricing, regardless of size. Why should the payment system give big business another advantage? The electronic cash register should not tilt the playing field.

Our payment system’s problems will not be solved by allowing or stopping a combination of Capital One and Discover. Adding a fourth major issuer to compete with the big three will make little difference if the system’s rules remain the same. Capital One already seems to be competing with American Express for wealthy customers who like elite airport lounges and big travel perks, which are funded in part from higher swipe fees. The rewards have kept getting richer over the past 20 years. Simply adding one more company to earn large profits through the existing system will hardly stop it.

Blocking the merger will fail to change the payment system that continues to drive greater rewards to those with the most money already, paid for by merchants and consumers who use cash, debit or lower-tier cards because they are not rich enough to qualify. As the economy continues to digitize with more micro-payments, the credit-card burden will keep growing, particularly on smaller businesses. Today’s large banks and payment companies will make more profit, sharing it based on who qualifies for elite status.

Until legislators are willing to change a system that showers tax-free rewards on the upper middle class, the cash register will continue to exacerbate the wealth gap and help big business get even bigger. It may feel great to stand up against a merger and fight those “big banks” — while enjoying a “free meal” at an exclusive airport lounge before taking a vacation using frequent flier miles. But if victory is more of the status quo, then the biggest losers will be those the government should protect the most.

Aaron Klein is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury from 2009 to 2012. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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