* Credit card firms can continue to set rules for merchants
* Tribunal says regulation is the best way to address issue
* Banks to benefit from ruling, analyst says
By Cameron French
TORONTO, July 23 Canada's Competition Tribunal
has dismissed a complaint about the rules imposed on merchants
by the Canadian arms of MasterCard Inc and Visa Inc
, a victory not only for the card companies but for the
banks that issue the cards.
The decision, released on Tuesday, means credit card
providers may continue to prohibit merchants from imposing a
surcharge on customers that use credit cards, especially premium
The Competition Bureau, an independent enforcement agency,
had argued that the credit-card company rules put customers at a
disadvantage and suppress competition among card providers, and
in 2010 it asked the tribunal to strike them down.
Typically, merchants must pay a fee ranging from 1.5 to 3
percent on card purchases, with higher fees charged for premium
rewards cards. That compares with a processing fee of about 12
Canadian cents for an Interac debit transaction, the bureau
Retail groups have estimated these "hidden fees" amount to
C$5 billion ($4.86 billion)-C$6 billion a year.
The bureau said the fees penalize cash customers because
retailers are forced to raise prices for all customers to cover
them, instead of raising prices only for card users.
In a summary of its decision, the tribunal agreed that the
rules have an adverse effect on competition, but said that under
its legal interpretation the relevant section of Canada's
Competition Act does not apply.
It said the proper way to address the issue would be to
change the regulations that cover the transactions.
"The tribunal made no award of costs and noted that the
(Competition Bureau) commissioner advanced a case which should
have been brought, even if the commissioner was not entirely
successful," it said in the summary.
In a statement released after the decision, Canadian Finance
Minister Jim Flaherty said he would call a meeting of
representatives of the credit card industry, retailers and
consumers to discuss next steps.
"I will be carefully reviewing the Competition Tribunal's
decision and also monitoring any potential appeal," Flaherty
Competition Bureau Commissioner John Pecman said he was
disappointed by the decision and would review it closely to
determine the bureau's next steps.
The Retail Council of Canada, which represents 45,000
stores, said that while it was also disappointed by the ruling,
it agreed with the tribunal that regulatory changes were the
"Despite today's ruling, the fact remains - Canadians are
paying more than they should be at the register because of these
high fees," spokesman David Wilkes said in a statement.
WIN FOR BANKS
Canada's credit card market is dominated by Visa and
MasterCard, which together control about 90 percent.
The cards are issued mainly by banks, which reap hefty fees
and interest charges from them, particularly from premium cards,
use of which might have fallen if the tribunal's decision had
gone the other way.
"It's great news for the banks," said Peter Routledge, an
analyst at National Bank of Canada.
Shares of the country's big banks were mixed on Tuesday,
with the strongest performer, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce
, one of the largest card issuers. The bank ended the
session up 0.7 percent at C$78.05 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Routledge said the decision could clear the way for CIBC to
make a final decision on whether it wants to maintain its
Aeroplan rewards partnership with loyalty program company Aimia
CIBC and Aimia have partnered for two decades on CIBC's
profitable Aerogold flight rewards card. Their agreement expires
at the end of the year, and last month rival Toronto-Dominion
Bank said it had a deal with Aimia to replace CIBC as
the card's issuer.
CIBC has until Aug. 9 to match the terms of the TD deal if
it wants to maintain the partnership. A spokeswoman for the bank
would not comment on whether the tribunal decision would affect
its next move.