July 25, 2017

Credit for Trying - Is Banning Transactions Fees a Win for the Consumer?

Take a second and think back to the last time you bought something that was on sale. How great did it feel? It’s easy to recognize and appreciate deals when you get a better price for something you were going to buy anyway. But how do you feel when the tables are turned, and you’re charged extra to buy something?

For example, when you go to the gas station to fill up your SUV, do you pay with cash or credit? At most stations, the price that you pay per gallon when using cash is different than the price per gallon for using credit. Either way, you’re getting the exact same gasoline, so how do you perceive this difference in price? If you see it as a mark-up or extra fee for using credit, you’re probably not a huge fan of the price differential. On the other hand, if you see it as a discount for using cash, you may view it favorably, and would be unlikely to want to see the discount removed.
When you purchase something, you often weigh 
the cost and benefits of using cash vs. credit
(Photo credit:
It is with this in mind that this article from The Telegraph, across the pond in the UK, caught my eye. The article was written by The Telegraph’s Consumer Affairs Editor, who chalks up a new law banning charging many credit card fees as a clear victory for consumers. If the title of the article, “[e]nd to rip-off credit card fees…” doesn’t make this position clear, the description of these “rip off” fees as being “used by shops, restaurants and travel firms to make extra profit at the direct expense of customers choosing to pay by card” should remove all doubt. But is the removal of these fees truly a clear “win” for consumers, at the expense of the greedy shops, restaurants, and travel firms?

Let’s begin by considering a portion of the quote above. These fees are charged to customers who are “choosing to pay by card.” This implies that the customers have other options (usually cash), but find paying by card to be preferable for some reason. Presumably, either they find using credit more convenient, or they may receive some cash back or points for using their credit cards. No matter the reason, some citizens chose to pay in credit despite the fee, and others chose to avoid the fee by paying in cash. Essentially, you’re free to sort into the group (cash or credit) that you feel is the best deal for you, after taking the fees into account.

Now what happens if you ban the ability to charge credit card transaction fees? If you’re a consumer, perhaps you’re hoping that the cash price will stay the same, and the credit price will be lowered to match it. Those who previously paid in credit would now be better off, since they still get the perks (convenience, points, etc…) of using credit, but for a lower price. If this scenario were to play out, even those previously using cash would be as well off, if not better off. Some of them may even choose to switch over and begin using credit cards for their purchases! Consumers would clearly be better off, and the costs would fall on either credit card companies or those greedy shops, restaurants and travel firms. The problem is, this scenario has some assumptions that aren’t likely to play out in the real world.
How do you view the price difference in
paying for gas with cash vs. credit?
(Photo credit: 127driver via Wikimedia Commons)
The issue with the scenario above is that it assumes the cash price will stay constant. It’s like assuming that if gasoline is currently $2.00/gallon when using cash, and $2.10/gal when using credit, that all gas would be $2.00/gal after the fees were banned. But it’s costly for gas stations and other stores to offer the payment option for credit cards. They even have to pay fees to the credit card companies for facilitating these transactions. If gas stations can’t pass along these fees to consumers, they have to find some other way to not lose money on the transaction. In this example, gas stations will do one of two things. First, they may increase the price of gas for everyone, let’s say to $2.05/gallon. While those consumers using credit cards are now better off, those who still use cash are clearly worse off, as they are helping subsidize the purchases of their credit using neighbors. The other possible result of the ban on fees is that vendors may choose to cease offering credit cards as a payment option all together. In this case, those who previously used credit cards are clearly worse off, as they used to have to choice to use either cash or credit and chose credit, but now must choose their second best option.

The lessons in the example above could easily be extrapolated to apply to all sorts of shops and firms. It’s easy to see that a law which essentially limits the choices of the consumer is not necessarily a clear “win” for all consumers, or even the average consumer. Viewing the issue as a discount for using cash rather than a penalty for using credit allows us to see more clearly the true costs and benefits of such a regulation. Perhaps The Telegraph is giving lawmakers more credit than they deserve.

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