Unintended Consequences of Regulation, Part “n”

Unintended Consequences of Regulation, Part “n”

I must admit, I lost count how many times we at Celent have written and talked about unintended consequences of regulation. This is the latest installment.

As most people know, PSD2 has introduced new card multilateral interchange fee (MIF) limits in Europe. Debit card transactions across Europe have been capped at 0.2% of transaction value, while for credit cards, the limit is 0.3%. This is often used as an example of regulators bearing down on the issuers, and in many cases, especially for credit cards, it is indeed a significant reduction of fees charged previously.

However, let's take a closer look at the UK. According to the UK Cards Association statistics, debit card transactions outnumber credit card transactions by 3.3 times (10.3 vs 3.1 billion in 2015), while the purchase value of debit card transactions was greater than that on credit cards by 2.4 times (£439 vs £181 billion in 2015). Furthermore, of nearly 100 milion debit cards issued in the UK, 97% carry Visa brand. In other words, Visa debit cards are the most popular payment cards in the UK.

Visa interchange rates have varied over the years, but immediately prior to March 2015, Visa interchange for consumer debit card chip & PIN transactions in the UK was flat 8p per transaction. In March 2015, those fees changed to 0.2% + 1p, but were capped at 50p. The extra penny could be charged, because the UK Payment System Regulator allowed an interim period where the cap of 0.2% could be applied at an aggregate rather than an individual transaction level. As the individual interchange fees were capped at 50p, that meant that in aggregate they didn't exceed the required 0.2% limit. However, we understand that as of September 1, 2016, Visa UK is removing both the extra 1p and the cap of 50p and setting debit interchange fees at 0.2% per transaction, as required by PSD2.

As the chart below demonstrates, transactions less than £35 become cheaper than 8p set prior to March 2015. At £41.34, which is the latest average debit card transaction value, the current charges are at 9p and new ones post September will be 8p, the same as before. However, transactions above that amount and up to £250 are already more expensive than 8p today and will remain so post September.

MIF1

The real difference is for transactions above £250. The removal of 50p cap and charging at a straight 0.2% means that a £10,000 transaction (for example, when buying a used car) will now cost a merchant £20 in interchange versus the 8p the merchant paid before the regulation came into effect.

MIF2

What about Brexit? Will these European regulations still apply in the future? The answer for domestic transactions is, yes. The interchange caps are now enshrined in the UK regulation and are independent of the UK's status in Europe. More broadly, the Payment Systems Regulator announced immediately following the referendum results that "current payments regulation deriving from the EU will remain applicable until any changes are made, which will be a matter for Government and Parliament." Perhaps a more interesting question is what would happen with transactions between the UK and Europe in the future. If the UK is no longer part of the EU, would the payment networks decide that such transactions should be treated as inter-regional rather than intra-regional? Only time will tell.

So, what are the merchants with larger than average debit card transaction portfolios going to do? In the short term, some might start surcharging to pass the costs on to the customer; longer term, others might start exploring other opportunities presented by PSD2, and consider becoming Payment Initiating Service Providers (PISP) to move customer funds directly from consumer bank account to theirs, shunning cards altogether. Almost inevitably, the most proactive ones will shop around to see which acquirers offer the best deals; remember, these are interchange fees, not the actual merchant charges, and it is up to the acquirers to decide how much they charge their merchants. However, once again, the consequences of a regulation are not quite as originally intended.

Brexit. Eventually. Possibly.

Brexit. Eventually. Possibly.

What did Britain say to its trade partners?

See EU later.

It’s been a funny week or two to say the least, so it seemed apposite to start with a joke (and we’re not talking about the England vs Iceland result! – the Icelandic commentator is worth a 30sec listen.)

The UK woke up to find that it was leaving Europe. Given the legendary British reserve, stiff upper lip, etc., it is quite incredible just how divided the country has become, and how everyone has an opinion. As a result, there has been a lot said before, during and after the campaign that needs to be sifted very carefully. This is a genuine attempt at a factual look at quite what this means as many of the facts are very definitely not facts.

What's actually going to happen? Frankly, the short answer is nobody actually knows. No country has ever left before. Greenland did but is both smaller and was leaving for other reasons. Nor did they invoke Article 50 (more of which in a second) which has never been used. Whilst there are some legal guidelines and processes, given that the European Union is an economic union governed by politicians, it’s fair to say that the process will be very political in nature. Particularly as Article 50 is not very precise.

The first step is for the UK to activate Article 50 which effectively formally starts the process. The UK has two years from informing the European Parliament that it intends to leave and actually signing article 50. Given other European elections, and despite some public calls from Europe to get on with it, some believe that it is likely to be later rather than sooner.

Until Article 50 is signed, the UK is still in Europe, and everything continues as they do today. What is less clear is when Article 50 is signed, what happens next, and how long the process will take. UK Government analyst suggests 5 years, yet others say at least a decade.

Nor is it yet clear what the UK will choose to negotiate on. For example, it may choose, voluntarily to adopt regulation such as PSD2. We (or, to be clear, Gareth) believe that the UK will push ahead with the PSD2, as many of the rules are either in place in the UK already, or reflect the way the Government is thinking e.g. the Open Data Initiative arguably is far wider reaching that the Access to Accounts element of the PSD2.

It’s not clear quite what is or isn’t the European Union necessarily. For example, passporting, the rule that allows financial services firms to be licenced in one country and operate in another, is actually (according to the Bank of England website at leastother reputable sites even disagree on this!), an European Economic Area (EEA) initiative, and even countries outside of the EEA, such as Switzerland, have negotiated deals. This is particularly key for card acquirers, many of whom use their UK licence to negate the need for local ones across Europe.

So, as they saying goes, the devil will be in the detail. And that’s going to take time to unravel, and to negotiate even on the things that need negotiating.

Over the coming months, banks will need to scenario plan on multiple dimensions. They will need to identify key regulations that impact their business, how that might be regulated, and how long it would take the bank to respond. Yet many, if not most banks, will have done some of this risk profiling before the vote took place.

Until there is clarity, the reality is that it’s the political fall-out is going to have the most impact in the short-term, itself creating a degree of additional economic turmoil.