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Financial services

Banking & Payment systems

Competition enforcement in the payment card market

The e-payments case against the European Payments Council (EPC)

In September 2011, the Commission opened an antitrust investigation into the standardisation process for payments over the internet ('e-payments') undertaken by the European Payments Council (EPC). The Commission is examining in particular whether the standardisation process limits market entry or innovation, for example through the exclusion of new entrants and payment providers who are not controlled by a bank. If proven such behaviour could be in violation of EU antitrust rules that prohibit restrictive business practices. An opening of proceedings does not prejudge the outcome of the investigation but merely means that the Commission is investigating the case as a matter of priority. On 13.06.2014, the Commission has decided to close antitrust proceedings in case EPC Online payments but continues monitoring online payments market.

Multilateral Interchange Fees (MIFs)

The Commission has conducted antitrust investigations in the payment card market, targeting in particular Multilateral Interchange Fees (MIFs). These are fees charged by a cardholder's bank (the 'issuing bank') to a merchant's bank (the 'acquiring bank') for each sales transaction made at a merchant outlet with a payment card. In payment schemes such as Visa and MasterCard, which are associations of banks, these fees are multilaterally agreed by member banks.

When a customer uses a payment card to buy from a merchant, the acquiring bank pays the merchant the sales price less a 'merchant service charge', the fee a merchant must pay to his bank for accepting the card as a means of payment. A large part of the merchant service charge is determined by the interchange fee. Merchants pass on their costs for accepting card payments to their customers by raising retail prices.

The MIF appears to be a decision of an association of undertakings that may have the object and the effect of restricting competition between acquiring banks. The MIF is an important part of the total cost for card acceptance and ultimately contributes to the prices of goods and services for final consumers. As demonstrated by the existence of payment schemes that function without a MIF, multilateral interchange fees are not indispensable for the viability of payment cards.

Even though MIFs appear – at least in the cases investigated by the Commission so far – to constitute a restriction of competition within the meaning of Article 101(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), they may be eligible for an exemption under Article 101(3) of the Treaty if it can be shown that they have positive overall effects on innovation and efficiency and allow a fair share of these benefits to be passed on to consumers.

The VISA decision of 2010

Following the expiry of an exemption decision in December 2007 and the adoption of the MasterCard Decision the Commission opened an antitrust investigation against Visa Europe, Visa Inc. and Visa International Service Association. In line with the MasterCard decision of 2007 (see below), the Commission's preliminary view was that Visa MIFs harmed competition between merchants' banks, inflated merchants' costs for accepting payment cards and ultimately increased consumer prices. Unlike in the MasterCard case, the Statement of Objections issued by the Commission in April 2009 covered all the consumer MIFs directly set by Visa Europe, which apply not only to cross-border transactions but also to domestic transactions in a number of EEA countries. Further, the Commission raised concerns against Visa Inc. and Visa International Services Association as regards the potential application of the Inter-Regional MIF by default.

In response to the Commission's objections, Visa Europe committed to reduce the maximum weighted average MIF for consumer debit cards for cross-border transactions and national transactions in those EEA countries where it sets the MIF directly to 0.20%. The Commission is of the view that the MIF rate proposed by Visa Europe is consistent with the Merchant Indifference Test *. The proposed maximum weighted average MIF may be modified if reliable new information on the cost of cards compared to the cost of cash becomes available.

Similarly to MasterCard's undertakings in 2009, Visa's commitments also provide for a number of measures to increase transparency and competition in the payment cards markets, which are an important complement to the proposed MIF reduction.

Following a market test, the commitments were made binding on Visa Europe in December 2010 for four years by a decision under Article 9 of Regulation 1/2003.

The MasterCard decision of 2007

In 2007, the Commission issued a decision against MasterCard MIFs applicable to cross-border payment card transactions with MasterCard and Maestro consumer debit and credit cards in the European Economic Area (EEA). The decision found that MasterCard MIFs violate Article 101 TFEU in that they restricted competition between acquiring banks and inflated the cost of card acceptance by retailers without leading to proven efficiencies under Article 101(3) TFEU. MasterCard was given six months to conform to the Commission's order to set its MIFs in compliance with the EU antitrust rules.

MasterCard appealed the decision before the General Court but pending the judgment, MasterCard undertook to reduce its cross-border MIFs to 0.30% of the transaction value for consumer credit cards and 0.20% of the transaction value for consumer debit cards. The General Court's judgment, fully upholding the Commission's decision, was issued on 24 May 2012.

Study on merchants' costs of processing payments by card and by cash

The Commission is presently conducting a study to measure merchants' costs of processing payments by card and by cash. The results will provide the basis for calculating a MIF benchmark under the Merchant Indifference Test. The MIT is a methodology developed in economic literature which was used by the Commission to assess the MIF rates applied by MasterCard through its undertakings and by Visa Europe following its Commitments. The fee that meets this test ensures that merchants do not pay higher charges than the value of the transactional benefits that card use generates for them. Merchants enjoy such transactional benefits if card payments reduce their cost relative to cash payments. (see more details on this methodology)

Precise and detailed data on the costs incurred by merchants when taking payments by card and by cash is needed to apply the MIT. The relevant costs are:

  • the payment instrument-specific equipment
  • labour and
  • service costs.

The Commission has been collecting such data through a survey of large retailers in 10 EU Member States (Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Sweden, and the UK). Following a public call for tenders, the survey contract was awarded to Deloitte Consulting.

The Commission is presently in the process of finalising the data collection on the basis of a detailed questionnaire and analysing the information collected, and expects to be able to publish the results of the study in the first half of 2014. 

Survey on volume and value of payments:

Due to resource and data availability constraints, the survey on costs covered large merchants only. To complement its results, the Commission launched an auxiliary survey aimed at collecting data only on the volume and value of payments. The survey targeted 2,000 merchants of different sizes in the same 10 countries listed above, to obtain complete data on the annual number and value of face-to-face payments processed, and their split across payment instruments. The purpose of this second survey is to enable the Commission to compare and extend the results of the first exercise to merchants that were not surveyed in detail on their payment processing costs.

Further to a call for tenders, the contract for carrying out this survey was also won by Deloitte Consulting. The Commission is presently in the process of finalising the data collection and analysing the results, together with the results of the cost survey described above.

For further information regarding the study, you may contact the European Commission by e-mail at COMP-D1-MAIL@ec.europa.eu

Presentation of Preliminary Results of the Data Collection concerning Merchants' Costs of accepting Cash and Cards

On Wednesday 19 February DG Competition presented the preliminary results of the data collection carried out by Deloitte Consulting regarding merchants' costs of accepting cash and card payments.

Press release
Slides of the presentation
Prepared remarks

Presentation by Deloitte Consulting
Video of the presentation - part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7 (mp4)

The final report is expected in the first half of 2014.