Happy Birthday Credit Cards! Redux

Photo by Paul Felberbauer on Unsplash

For a long time, one of the pillars of the cashless economy has been the advent of bank-sponsored credit cards (at the time called universal payment cards). There are several books about it as well as academic papers, of these my favourite is that by Dave Stearns. You can also see a video by Lana Swartz discussing her book which touches on the genesis of Diner’s Club.

Today (18.Sep.2020), David Birch reminds of the genesis of this payment medium in his column while celebrating the 58th anniversary to what was to become VISA. Throughout his writings, Birch has had a preference for the insight story by Joe Nocera’s “A Piece of the Action “(which, of course, Dave and Lana considered in their work).

However, I had to somewhat disagree with Birch’s version of events. For one I think he is giving too much credit to Diner’s, which was a travel and entertainment card. He is also downplaying the role of large retailers, which offered credit to customers and the main competitors for the banks.

Another point of departure is whether the “combination of regulation and technology” sorted all the problems. In terms of technology, the magnetic stripe was necessary. But at a more fundamental level were the computer systems that enabled to process the large volume of payments within deadlines.

There has been a lot of emphasis on how credit cards were posted indiscriminately for their adoption. We wrote on the UK experience of Barclaycard. However, banks in the USA had been attempting to offer an alternative to store credit since at least the 1940s. Geographic restrictions at the time in the USA led to the development of a business model that enabled users to cross state lines (something difficult to do with personal cheques or the yet to develop ATM network). I think that was part of the key to explaining the success of VISA (and shortly after what was to become Mastercard, launched by Illinois banks which at the time was a single branch state). So a model in which banks were able to network on creating a platform is the argument that Evans and Schmalensee used in their seminal work on two-sided markets. 

However, in a paper with Gustavo del Angel, we argued that American banks made their proposition superior to that of single retailers thanks to their financial muscle and contacts with diverse retailers. It was also the case that the international network built thanks to “monopoly” positions of large incumbent banks in different countries, which eventually became and remain the biggest acquirers in their territory.

Here the non-discrimination clause (where paying by cash was not to be less expensive than paying plastic) was a critical achievement in the marketing of the card by banks amongst retailers. Retailers accepted the cards (and pay banks a commission when customers used the card), based on market studies showing customers with cards would purchase more. The one issue was that these studies prepared by the banks or credit card companies themselves.

It was also the case that many international licences achieved positive cash flows much earlier than expected. Hence the risk of reading too much on developments in the US, where banks were much smaller in terms of branches and customers than in Europe, Japan and large Latin American countries.

In short, I agree with Birtch that:

That the evolutionary trajectory of credit cards was not a simple, straight, onwards-and-upwards hockey-stick to glory and to gross margins that merchants can only dream of.

But the story has perhaps more twists and turns than most people give credit.

 

RePEc Papers mentioned in this entry:

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo & Gustavo A. Del Angel, 2016. “The Dawn of the Plastic Jungle: The Introduction of the Credit Card in Europe and North America, 1950-1975,” Economics Working Papers, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. Accessed https://ideas.repec.org/p/hoo/wpaper/16107.html

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo & Nurdilek Hacialioglu, 2004. “Barclaycard: Still the King of Pla$tic?,” General Economics and Teaching, University Library of Munich, Germany. Accessed https://ideas.repec.org/p/wpa/wuwpgt/0405004.html

See also

Bernardo Batiz-Lazo & Nurdilek Hacialioglu, 2004. “Barclaycard: Still the King of Pla$tic? (Exhibits),” General Economics and Teaching, University Library of Munich, Germany. Accessed https://ideas.repec.org/p/wpa/wuwpgt/0405005.html

 

This entry was posted in @batizlazo, Working Papers by bbatiz. Bookmark the permalink.

About bbatiz

I have edited NEP-HIS since 1999 and its blog in 2010. My background is economics and business history. I am currently at Northumbria University (Newcastle) and my research interests are broadly in applications of computer technology, retail banking and the cashless society.

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