On Friday March 19th, The Wall Street Journal published an article disclosing that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is launching an antitrust investigation of Visa again. While the last investigation caused the dismantling of the planned acquisition of Plaid, this time the focus of the investigation is over debit routing. Sound familiar?
While no one has come forward with details surrounding the investigation, it is believed to be similar to the inquiries of a Federal Trade Commission investigation and also touches upon the same issues contained in the letter that Senator Durbin (D-IL) wrote to the Federal Reserve last year. (I wrote a blog on this topic if you are interested.)
The core issue is whether or not Visa is using its market dominance in the U.S. debit card market to prevent merchants from easily accessing the EFT debit networks like Pulse, Shazam, Star and others that are referred to as the “unaffiliated networks” and are often less expensive for merchants to accept than a Visa debit transaction.
So last week’s DOJ announcement is likely nothing new, but also an assurance that the debit routing controversy will not go away.
Here’s what the Wall Street Journal reported:
The Justice Department is investigating whether Visa Inc. is engaging in anticompetitive practices in the debit-card market, a probe that casts a cloud over a core part of its business.
The department’s antitrust division has been gathering information and asking whether Visa, the largest U.S. card network, has limited merchants’ ability to route debit-card transactions over card networks that are often less expensive, according to people familiar with the matter.
Many of the department’s questions have focused on online debit-card transactions, but investigators have asked about in-store issues as well, the people said.
The probe highlights the important role of the so-called network fees that are invisible to consumers, lucrative for card companies, but a weight on merchants, who often pass on the fees in the form of higher prices to customers.
Overview by Sarah Grotta, Director, Debit and Alternative Products Advisory Service at Mercator Advisory Group