NRF seeks to block swipe fee suit settlement

WASHINGTON — The National Retail Federation is set to go to court in order to block the proposed $7.25 billion settlement of a federal antitrust lawsuit over Visa and MasterCard credit card swipe fees.

NRF said a resolution, which has been approved by its board of directors, authorizes NRF to take steps, including "intervention in pending actions" in order to reach a solution "equitable to the broad merchant community." NRF is exploring what form the legal action might take. NRF noted it is not a party to the lawsuit, and U.S. District Court judge John Gleeson has not yet fully outlined how outside groups will be allowed to intervene, or if the case qualifies as a class action.

NRF is concerned by a number of provisions of the proposed settlement:

  • The $7.25 billion amounts to pennies on the dollar. If the case went to trial, a verdict in favor of retailers could result in a judgment totaling hundreds of billions of dollars given the eight-year time period of the case and rules allowing for antitrust damages to be tripled;

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  • Nothing is done to block future increases in swipe fees. Without competitive restrictions, the card industry would quickly recoup the cost of the settlement from the very retailers who have been harmed, and increases that have averaged 16 percent a year over the past decade could continue indefinitely;

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  • Nothing is done to reform the anticompetitive, cartel-like system by which Visa and MasterCard each set fee schedules that all banks issuing their respective cards agree to follow. NRF has testified before Congress that the system is a violation of federal antitrust law;

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  • Nothing is done to require the card industry to disclose the fees on the cards or otherwise create the transparency needed to bring about competition to lower fees;

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  • A highly publicized provision allowing merchants to surcharge customers who pay by credit card is pointless because merchants are seeking to reduce prices for customers, not increase them. It also includes myriad restrictions that would make it difficult to surcharge even if someone wanted to;

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  • Visa and MasterCard have promised to recognize merchant bargaining groups, but no requirement is made for the card companies to negotiate in good faith; and

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  • NRF is particularly concerned by a provision barring all merchants — including those that do not yet exist — from ever again suing Visa and MasterCard over swipe fees.

"The National Retail Federation categorically opposes the proposed settlement," NRF president and CEO Matthew Shay said. "It does nothing to curb the anticompetitive behavior of Visa and MasterCard, and instead ensures that swipe fees paid by retailers and their customers will continue to rise while barring any future legal challenges. The proposal is a lose-lose-lose for merchants, consumers and competition. NRF will take any and all steps necessary to oppose the settlement as it is currently proposed and will work toward real reform of the swipe fee system."

Credit card swipe averages about 2% of each transaction and amounts to about $30 billion a year, or $250 per household, NRF said, adding that swipe fees are the second- or third-highest expense for most retailers, behind employee salaries and healthcare benefits.

"We represent the nation's retailers and that means not just today's retailers but tomorrow's as well," Shay said. "It is our duty to foster an environment that is supportive of young, new entrepreneurs who will create the Walmarts and Amazons and Main Street shops of the future. We can't stand by and allow their rights to be stripped away before they’ve even had a chance to start their businesses."