Moody’s on Credit Card Interchange Fee Settlement

The July 13 settlement of a lawsuit over allegedly fixed credit card interchange fees is a credit positive for the two largest industry players Visa and Mastercard, but will have a smaller impact on merchant acquirers, retailers and banks, said  Moody’s Investors Service in a new special comment "Credit Card Interchange Fee Settlement is Credit Positive For Visa, MasterCard."

The $6.6 billion settlement concludes a protracted legal proceeding that saw retailers sue credit card network operators and the largest banks that issue Visa and MasterCard payment cards, alleging a conspiracy to fix interchange fees.

As part of the settlement Visa will pay its $4.4 billion share from its litigation escrow account, which is funded by the shareholdings of U.S. member banks. But the longer-term impact of this settlement will continue to factor into ratings, said Moody’s.

"This settlement removes a major uncertainty for Visa and MasterCard with an interchange fee reduction much smaller than expected," said Stephen Sohn, a Moody’s VP – senior credit officer. "Without this litigation overhang, Visa and MasterCard could pursue more aggressive financial policies that will be key to any possible rating changes."

One effect of the settlement might be a reduction in credit card volumes, says the rating agency. That’s because retailers are now free to impose surcharges on credit card purchases, although "no-surcharge" laws in 10 states—including California, Texas and New York—will remain valid.

Banks like JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup too will only be modestly affected by the settlement, standing to lose only about 1%-3% of pre-provision income, says Moody’s.

Given the relatively small reduction of credit card interchange fees (10 basis points for an eight-month period), we expect that merchant acquirers will only modestly benefit from keeping a portion of the savings in 2013. 

But neither the monetary damages from the settlement or the temporary reduction in the interchange fees will have a material impact on the earnings of retailers. Moody’s expects any savings to offset rising operating costs.

The last area of the settlement that is of potential benefit to retailers is the ability to assess a surcharge on purchases made with a MasterCard or Visa credit card. However, because Moody’s believes consumers would not view surcharges favorably, it expects large national retailers not to add surcharges to credit-card purchases. However, Moody’s said it is possible that small mom-and-pop retailers who operate in states that allow surcharges may decide to add them.

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