Amex in Court

by Michael Misasi 0

The U.S. Justice Department has claimed that American Express’ stifles competition by imposing operating rules which prevent merchants from engaging in certain practices to steer customers to lower cost payment types, which can include Visa and MasterCard products.

American Express argues that its unique pricing model allows the company to offer rewards that differentiate it from competing card networks. One might argue that American Express products are not in fact significantly different from Visa or MasterCard branded credit and charge cards, but that might not matter, at least to Amex.

The company’s cardholder base skews much more affluent than a typical Visa or MasterCard portfolio. Without a doubt, the American Express Membership Rewards program is a major reason why many affluent consumers prefer the company’s products, even if they are only different in perception.

“When people actually use their points, they like us more and spend more on their cards,” said Joshua Silverman, president of the company’s U.S. Consumer Services business in Payments Source. “Cardholders feel they are getting “free money.”‘

Any restriction on Amex’s ability to set merchant pricing would have a direct impact on the company’s ability to provide the majority of its customers with the rewards and services they desire and make it much more difficult for it to compete with other credit card issuers and networks for one of the most highly valued customer segments.

American Express’ testimony before the Justice Department includes some very strongly worded statements about the importance of the company’s pricing model. This is not surprising considering that one of Amex’s most valuable assets, its proprietary reward program, is at stake. For example, Silverman stated that limitation on Amex’s pricing “would be disastrous, and we would have to rethink everything in our business model,” according to the Payments Source article.

The case is U.S. v. American Express Co., 1:10-cv-04496, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

Overview by Michael Misasi, Senior Analyst, Credit Advisory Services

To read the full story, go to Payments Source.