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Visa Inc (V), Mastercard Inc (MA): The Debit Card Kingdom May Be Crumbling

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This article has been amended to better reflect the ramifications of the debit card ruling.

A landmark ruling in a federal case regarding debit card fees could potentially cost the kings of plastic billions. When and if the hype materializes, which companies are standing to weather this financial storm, and come out the other side stronger?

The Judge Has Spoken

On July 31, a U.S. district court invalidated a rule concerning fees charged on debit-card transactions. Judge Richard Leon handed a victory to a band of retailers who had sued the Federal Reserve for capping debit card fees at $0.21 per transaction. The cap took effect in October 2011 as a response to the 2010 financial overhaul law, and was the first-ever limit on debit cards.

Visa Inc (NYSE:V)The Fed first proposed a $0.12 cap, but “buckled under pressure” from bank lobbyists when it decided to raise the cap by $0.09, according to the coalition of retailers. Leon’s ruling stated that the Fed disregarded Dodd-Frank regulations by “inappropriately inflating all debit card transactions by billions of dollars and failing to provide merchants with multiple unaffiliated networks for each debit card transaction.”

The Future of “Swipe Fees”

Guggenheim Partners, a financial service company with more than $180 billion under management, predicted in a note released to investors that debit fees are likely to be cut by more than 50% as result of the court decision. According to Guggenheim, fees will likely revert to the $0.07 to $0.12 per transaction that was originally proposed by the Fed.

However, fees will not be lowered until the Fed adopts new standards. Leon’s decision expressed that the process of developing new rules should take “months, not years.” Guggenheim Partners predicts that current rates will remain in place through 2014 or longer, as the Fed is likely to appeal the decision.

Wall Street Reacts

The court ruling was made public in the middle of the trading day on July 31. Immediately after Wall Street comprehended the news, Visa Inc (NYSE:V)Mastercard Inc (NYSE:MA), and American Express Company (NYSE:AXP) all experienced sudden mini-crashes. Visa finished the day down a thundering 7.54%. Mastercard, buoyed by the stunning quarter it had reported that morning, finished up 1.53% after turning negative briefly, while American Express suffered a decline of 1.89%.

Visa Inc (NYSE:V) reacted most severely as a result of its massive exposure to the domestic debit card industry. According to a report released by Nilson Report, a leading global payment industry market research company, in 2012, Visa debit cards accounted for 29.2% of total US payment volume, compared to a 11.9% share for Mastercard Inc (NYSE:MA) debit cards.

The court ruling in no way harms America Express. The company possesses zero exposure to the debit card market, and the ruling does not affect its credit card operations. However, American Express Company (NYSE:AXP) was driven lower with the rest of the industry, potentially presenting a buying opportunity for investors looking to position in the company.

Looking Towards Tomorrow

The court ruling is substantial. Debit card fees could be cut in half, which could cost Visa Inc (NYSE:V) and Mastercard Inc (NYSE:MA) millions. However, the Fed is very likely to appeal, and even if it doesn’t, the process of forming the new rules and implementing them will likely be long and strenuous.

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