Competition, of course, usually forces prices lower. But for payment networks like Visa and MasterCard, competition in the card business is more about winning over banks that actually issue the cards than consumers who use them. Visa and MasterCard set the fees that merchants must pay the cardholder's bank. And higher fees mean higher profits for banks, even if it means that merchants shift the cost to consumers.
Seizing on this odd twist, Visa enticed banks to embrace signature debt -- the higher-priced method of handling debit cards -- and turned over the fees to banks as an incentive to issue more Visa cards. At least initially, MasterCard and other rivals promoted PIN debit instead.