Rewards Credit Cards Could Soon Be History

Do you know what interchange fees (they're also called "swipe fees") are? Not many people do. But they're the cut of the value of every transaction that's taken by the processor ( American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa) every time you use your debit or credit card. And most of what's charged, typically 2 percent or so, for a credit card swipe is passed on to your card issuer.

For many credit card users, interchange fees are a large part of what makes their financial world go round. Think about it. If you're one of those lucky (or responsible) people who don't pay either an annual fee or interest, you're getting an awful lot of services entirely for free.

Credit card use for free

You're not paying for the free loan from the transaction date until the settlement date. You're not paying for all the consumer protections your credit card gives you. You're not paying for the production or mailing either of it or the monthly statements you receive. You're not paying for the goodies your rewards credit cards give you, nor the perks your card delivers, nor the overheads of running your credit card companies.

But somebody is. Generally speaking, card issuers have just three main sources of income:
  1. Annual fees, usually paid by those who want special perks from their cards (for instance, privileges at airports) or who have too low a credit score to qualify for a card that doesn't charge such fees.
  2. Interest, paid at currently high credit card rates, by those who can't settle their accounts in full at the end of each billing cycle. You can also add into this category penalty fees paid for going over your limit or for making late payments.
  3. Interchange fees, nominally paid by merchants, but, arguably, a cost passed on to all customers in the form of higher prices. Some estimates suggest that interchange fees are costing U.S. merchants (or their customers) $50 billion a year.

The trouble today is, the first two of those three are often not delivering as much cash as they once did. Annual fees, except when they're delivering privileges that cost real money, are becoming rare. Fewer people are carrying credit card debt, with the Federal Reserve reporting in July that revolving credit balances in May were $870.2 billion, compared with over a trillion dollars in 2008. And, of course, the Credit CARD Act capped penalty fees. All this means that, even with today's high credit card interest rates, purveyors of plastic are relying increasingly on interchange fees to stay on top of costs.

Credit card companies and a perfect storm

So now for the big new threat. In mid-July, MasterCard, Visa and a number of big credit card companies offered to settle a law suit brought by retailers involving the interchange fee market. The defendants agreed to pay out about $6 billion in cash, and a further $1.2 billion in discounted swipe fees over the coming months.

More importantly for the long term, those defendants have also agreed to allow merchants to charge more to customers who opt to pay with credit cards, and/or to offer discounts to those who pay using cash, checks or debit cards. In other words, you could soon be faced with a stark choice: pay a lower price or use your credit cards.