Wednesday, December 08, 2010

U.S. State Dept. lobbying Russia for Visa/Mastercard

Why were Visa and Mastercard to eager to block payments the State Dept. doesn't like? From a "confidential" cable from the U.S. embassy in Moscow, Feb 10, 2010:

According to Visa's XXXX, the latest version follows the "China model" of payment card systems. The law would set up a National Payment Card System (NPCS), which XXXX reported would likely be run by a consortium of state banks as either a non-profit entity or a joint stock, profit-making company. Banks and credit card companies would have the option of joining the NPCS. If they joined, banks in Russia would issue cards under the NPCS brand, with its own logo. Payment processing for these cards would be done on-shore by the NPCS entity. According to the Kommersant article, the fees for these services are estimated at Rb 120 billion ($4 billion) annually. As XXXX pointed out, the vast majority of Visa's business in Russia is done with cards issued and used in Russia; with earnings from processing going to NPCS, Visa would no longer profit from these transactions.

While joining the NPCS would be optional for both banks and international payment card companies, membership has its privileges. If Visa and MasterCard choose to join the NPCS, they would not have any role in domestic transaction processing, but the bank-issued NPCS cards could be "co-branded" with Visa or MasterCard. When the cardholder used his card abroad, the transaction theoretically would go through the normal Visa or MasterCard processing that takes place outside of Russia. While XXXX said such a deal is a possibility, it would require negotiations to specify this approach in the draft law.

In the proposed draft of the law, if international payment card companies choose not to join the NPCS, they will have to set up on-shore processing centers. But neither Visa nor MasterCard representatives, which together have 85% of the Russian payment card market, are willing to say whether they would be willing to do so. MasterCard's Head in Russia, XXXX XXXX, said MasterCard would have to "build and assess the business model of setting up on-shore processing" before it could reach a decision. The draft law stipulates that international payment card companies will have one year to establish processing centers inside of Russia. (Note: Currently no international companies have processing centers in Russia.) A ban on sending abroad payment data for purely domestic transactions will become effective two years after the law enters into force.

According to XXXX, MinFin understands that this would entail so much expense and difficulty for Visa and MasterCard that the two companies might quit the Russian domestic market. XXXX believes that, at least at the Deputy Minister level, MinFin's hands are tied. Implying that Russian security services were behind this decision, XXXX said, "There is some se-cret (government) order that no one has seen, but everyone has to abide by it." As described reftel, credit card company and bank representatives have told us that GOR officials apparently assume that US payment systems routinely share data associated with payment transactions by Russian cardholders with intelligence services in the US and elsewhere. ...

This draft law continues to disadvantage U.S. payment card market leaders Visa and MasterCard, whether they join the National Payment Card System or not. If they join, the NPCS operator will collect the fees, leaving them to collect processing fees only when card-holders travel abroad -- a tiny section of the market. If they do not join but choose to compete with NPCS cards, they will have to set up payment processing centers in Russia, a very large investment in itself, and compete against a system likely backed by the largest Russian state banks. While the draft legislation has yet to be submitted to the Duma and can still be amended, post will continue to raise our concerns with senior GOR officials. We recommend that senior USG officials also take advantage of meetings with their Russian counterparts, including through the Bilateral Presidential Commission, to press the GOR to change the draft text to ensure U.S. payment companies are not adversely affected.