Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2002

Center/Program

Center for Contract and Economic Organization

Center/Program

The Charles Evans Gerber Transactional Studies Center

Abstract

The widespread use of cards is one of the most salient features of consumer retail payment systems in the United States. American consumers use those cards to pay for about one-fourth of their retail purchases each year.' And this is not a static phenomenon; among other things, the use of debit cards,2 though still relatively small, is rising rapidly.3 That pattern of use is not, however, typical of other countries. Even in some highly industrialized nations, consumers use cards to pay for purchases much less frequently. Statistics from the Bank for International Settlements, for example, suggest about sixty card-based payment transactions per person per year in the United States, but only four such transactions per person per year in Japan.4 But the differences go far beyond a simple willingness to use cards to make retail payments. The average transaction for which a card is used in Japan is much larger than the average card-paid transaction in the United States. At the same time, Japanese cardholders are much more likely to pay their entire bills each month than American cardholders: borrowing beyond the first statement period appears in only about one-tenth of Japanese credit card transactions, while about half of American cardholders borrow each month.5 The reasons for the differing patterns of use (or disuse) of cards have several important policy ramifications. First, in the countries in which cards are used frequently, their success suggests that they generally provide payment more cheaply and effectively than competing retail payment systems. By lowering the transaction costs of retail transactions, those systems generally bolster the efficiency of the economy's retail sector. Second, at least in the United States, leading scholars associate the credit card with an embarrassingly high rate of consumer bankruptcy--generally the highest of any industrialized country.6 Third, there is good reason to believe that wide use of credit cards is inversely related to a nation's savings rate. If, as some scholars argue, credit card usage causes the decline in savings, 7 then policies that foster credit card usage are relevant to those aspects of macroeconomic planning that are affected by savings rates. Thus, concerned policymakers should welcome an enhanced understanding of the institutional factors that motivate the use of cards in general, or the use of cards as a borrowing device in particular.

Comments

Permission to reprint has been granted by the Vanderbilt Law Review.

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