Microeconomics and Credit Card Reward Points

A lovely little article in the New York Times is worth a ponder, especially if you are a student of microeconomics:

There’s an undeniable feeling of excitement when you turn your daily credit card swipes at Starbucks into first-class airfare or a weekend jaunt to Costa Rica. Thanks to mobile banking and the ease of autopay, you can scrupulously avoid any additional costs by paying your monthly bill in full. Free flights and exclusive discounts abound.
Something for nothing, right?
Not exactly nothing. Credit card perks for educated, usually urban professionals are being subsidized by people who have less. In other words, when you book a hotel room or enjoy entry to an airport lounge at no cost, poor consumers are ultimately footing the bill.

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/04/opinion/credit-card-rewards-points-poor-interchange-fees.html

As you probably already know, one can “earn” reward points for spends on your credit card. You can then use these points to buy stuff, or earn cashbacks on these points, or spend them at partner stores. And there are other perks and benefits too. If you’ve travelled through an Indian airport, you might have seen the crowd waiting to get into an airport lounge – more often than not, access is tied to the kind of credit card you have in your wallet.

But remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch. You may not be paying for these perks as a credit card holder, but one of the first lessons of economics is that somebody, somewhere, is paying for it. So who is paying, in this case? As the last sentence in the excerpt makes clear, according to the article, that someone is the group of poor consumers.

Some background, based partially on the article in question, and partially on my own understanding of this space:

  1. Richer consumers are likely to spend more, but tend to not revolve much, if at all. To this group of consumers, a credit card is a way to get a (up to) 45 day interest free loan, with the added bonus of these reward points to boot. Remember, incentives matter – and these reward points are the carrot that is offered to people in order to get them to sign up.
  2. Dangling these reward points as a carrot makes business sense, for that allows a credit card company to sign up folks who will spend more via these credit cards. Credit card companies make money when people “revolve” – that is, when they spend using their credit cards, but do not pay up the entirety of their credit card bill on time. How much money do these companies make? Here, take a look.
  3. So consumers who take a credit card, spend a lot on it, and pay back the entirety of their credit card bill – these kinds of customers are actually a loss-making proposition for the credit card company.
  4. Consumers who spend a fair bit, find themselves unable to repay the entirety on time, and end up paying over months (if not years) – these customers are where the credit card companies earn their bread and butter (and jam and peanut butter, while they’re at it).
  5. Consumers who borrow a lot using their credit cards, and default on these loans – these are the very worst type of consumers for credit card companies. Risk departments in such firms exist to predict which consumers should be denied access to credit cards, and which of the existing customers are likely to default on their credit card loans.
  6. But broadly speaking, the NY Times article says that it is pt. 4 consumers (and pt. 5 consumers) who end up paying for the freebies that pt. 3 consumers enjoy. (but also see below, after this section)
  7. In addition, another way to make money for these credit card companies is to charge higher credit card processing charges to all consumers. This fee changes from country to country, but as a thumb-rule, assume it to be around 1-2% of each transaction. That’s not an exact estimate, but good enough for us over here. Rewards to specific folks, to be offset by diffusing the costs of offering these rewards across a much wider group, in other words. And note that merchants (who are charged these fees) will usually pass these fees on to the consumers. See here, for example.
  8. A 1-2% increase in price may not be the end of the world if your income is high enough – it is an inconvenience, not a crisis. But for low income earners, already on a tight budget, this price increase across all transactions can bite a fair bit.
  9. An out and out free market economist might say that this is fine, the market will work itself out. That is, if this 1-2% charge is an act of rent collection, new entrants in such a market will end up charging lower to no fees, and incumbents will be forced to respond by lowering their own fees. That’s econ 101, but life is more complicated than that.
  10. And that is a good first-pass answer, but as many people will tell you, markets don’t always work as designed or intended. Incumbents will go out of their way to prevent new entrants (through lobbying, through pricing, through R&D, and through a dozen different ways), which is why regulation is important.
  11. But will regulators do what they’re supposed to? What are their incentives? How can we make sure that regulation will be balanced between the interests of the incumbents, the new entrants, the potential entrants, and the customers? Hello, industrial organization, and hello, public choice.
  12. What is the role for government in all of this? In terms of participation (think UPI, for example, but note that this is a complicated story in its own right), in terms of regulation (both from a domestic and international financial markets perspective) and in terms of oversight?

All these points (and I hope you come up with more) are worth thinking about as a student. Remember, these points aren’t proven facts – they are a summary in part of the article an in part of my own reflections for having read the article. Discussions such as these are a great way to outline a research agenda – but that is when the job of a researcher begins. Can we convert these points into testable hypotheses? Can we get data to prove/disprove these hypotheses? Can that data then be used to reach a definitive conclusion? Can that conclusion be used to formulate policy, or start a business?

In terms of research about this topic, sample this from the conclusion of a paper on the topic: “While credit card rewards are often framed as a “reverse Robin Hood” mechanism in which the poor subsidize the rich, our results show that this explanation is at best incomplete.”

But also from the very last paragraph of the same paper:

We conclude by documenting that the costs and benefits of credit card rewards are unequally distributed across geographies in the United States. Credit card rewards transfer income from less to more educated, from poorer to richer, and from high- to low minority areas, thereby widening existing spatial disparities.

https://www.federalreserve.gov/econres/feds/files/2023007pap.pdf

And here’s the link to a directive from the RBI about the issuance of and conduct regarding credit and debit cards in India.


Homework: who (ultimately) pays for CRED from a distributional perspective? Whatever your answer, explain your reasoning, and either provide data to back up your arguments, or explain what kind of data you would need to research this question further.

Try discussing this question with your friends and your professors (including ChatGPT, and yes, you should be thinking of it as one of your professors) – it will be a great way to learn the nuances of microeconomics!

My thanks to Mihir Mahajan for suggesting this topic.