TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's Competition Tribunal has dismissed a complaint about the rules imposed on merchants by the Canadian arms of MasterCard Inc (MA.N) and Visa Inc (V.N), a victory not only for the card companies but for the banks that issue the cards.
The decision, released on Tuesday, means credit card providers may continue to prohibit merchants from imposing a surcharge on customers that use credit cards, especially premium cards.
The Competition Bureau, an independent enforcement agency, had argued that the credit-card company rules put customers at a disadvantage and suppress competition among card providers, and in 2010 it asked the tribunal to strike them down.
Typically, merchants must pay a fee ranging from 1.5 to 3 percent on card purchases, with higher fees charged for premium rewards cards. That compares with a processing fee of about 12 Canadian cents for an Interac debit transaction, the bureau said.
Retail groups have estimated these "hidden fees" amount to C$5 billion ($4.86 billion)-C$6 billion a year.
The bureau said the fees penalize cash customers because retailers are forced to raise prices for all customers to cover them, instead of raising prices only for card users.
In a summary of its decision, the tribunal agreed that the rules have an adverse effect on competition, but said that under its legal interpretation the relevant section of Canada's Competition Act does not apply.
It said the proper way to address the issue would be to change the regulations that cover the transactions.
"The tribunal made no award of costs and noted that the (Competition Bureau) commissioner advanced a case which should have been brought, even if the commissioner was not entirely successful," it said in the summary.
In a statement released after the decision, Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty said he would call a meeting of representatives of the credit card industry, retailers and consumers to discuss next steps.
"I will be carefully reviewing the Competition Tribunal's decision and also monitoring any potential appeal," Flaherty said.
Competition Bureau Commissioner John Pecman said he was disappointed by the decision and would review it closely to determine the bureau's next steps.
The Retail Council of Canada, which represents 45,000 stores, said that while it was also disappointed by the ruling, it agreed with the tribunal that regulatory changes were the best answer.
"Despite today's ruling, the fact remains - Canadians are paying more than they should be at the register because of these high fees," spokesman David Wilkes said in a statement.
Canada's credit card market is dominated by Visa and MasterCard, which together control about 90 percent.
The cards are issued mainly by banks, which reap hefty fees and interest charges from them, particularly from premium cards, use of which might have fallen if the tribunal's decision had gone the other way.
"It's great news for the banks," said Peter Routledge, an analyst at National Bank of Canada.
Shares of the country's big banks were mixed on Tuesday, with the strongest performer, Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CM.TO), one of the largest card issuers. The bank ended the session up 0.7 percent at C$78.05 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.
Routledge said the decision could clear the way for CIBC to make a final decision on whether it wants to maintain its Aeroplan rewards partnership with loyalty program company Aimia (AIM.TO).
CIBC and Aimia have partnered for two decades on CIBC's profitable Aerogold flight rewards card. Their agreement expires at the end of the year, and last month rival Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD.TO) said it had a deal with Aimia to replace CIBC as the card's issuer.
CIBC has until August 9 to match the terms of the TD deal if it wants to maintain the partnership. A spokeswoman for the bank would not comment on whether the tribunal decision would affect its next move.
Editing by Jeffrey Hodgson; and Peter Galloway