American Express Co.'s Harvey Golub wrapped up his testimony Thursday in the government's antitrust case against Visa and MasterCard by defending his motives for seeking partnerships with banks.
A Visa attorney, Stephen Bomse, spent a good part of the morning dissecting a speech that Mr. Golub, chairman and chief executive officer of American Express, gave at an industry conference four years ago in Atlanta. This speech has provided rich fodder for the bank card associations' attacks on Amex during the trial, which began June 12.
The speech was Mr. Golub's first invitation to banks to issue Amex cards to their customers, and it laid out in detail how they would benefit from such an arrangement. But any U.S. bank that accepted Mr. Golub's offer would violate Visa and MasterCard rules. The associations say the speech supports their contention that Amex has tried to divide them and to cherry-pick their best bank members.
In court, Mr. Golub said it had not been his intention to drive a wedge between Visa and MasterCard, but added, "I don't care if a wedge is created or not. I just wanted banks to work with me."
Judge Barbara S. Jones, who is presiding over the trial in U.S. District Court in New York, intervened several times to stem the sparring between Mr. Golub and Mr. Bomse, and indicated that she is not impressed with the associations' argument that Amex wanted to come between them.
"Driving a wedge is colorful," she told Mr. Bomse, "but it is not very helpful."
Mr. Bomse zeroed in on several points Mr. Golub made in his speech: his call for banks to stop supporting the associations' development of corporate and purchasing card systems; his plea for banks to demand higher merchant fees; and his urging that banks stop supporting the associations' high-priced sponsorships of sporting events.
In the speech, Mr. Golub said: "I would question how it is in my interest for Visa to support a sports league or other organization by providing $20 million or $25 million as an incentive to issue cobranded cards. This clearly benefits individual bank card members at the expense of others."
He also told bankers: "I would question how it is in my interest for the association to fund the development and sales of corporate and purchasing card systems, travelers checks, Visa Travel Money, and now home banking."
"You really wanted to stop the competitive threat before the Visa corporate card really cut into your profits?" Mr. Bomse asked Mr. Golub. Mr. Golub disputed Mr. Bomse's version of Amex's motives. The associations, he said, "discriminate" against some members by helping others.
Mr. Bomse accused Mr. Golub of asking banks to put pressure on Visa and MasterCard to raise merchant discount rates so that Amex would not have to lower its own merchant rates, which are higher than the associations'.
In his speech, Mr. Golub said, "As a Visa member, I would wonder how it is in my interest to have merchants push American Express to lower merchant rates as they did for years in the late 1980s and early 1990s," because there is evidence that Visa's rates are set too low.
Mr. Bomse suggested that Amex wanted to keep its merchant rates high, and that was one reason it sought to open its network to banks. At first Mr. Golub agreed that opening Amex's network to banks would indeed protect Amex's fee structure, then he clarified his answer, saying that first and foremost Amex wants to increase the volume on its network and thus increase its market share. Maintaining the higher merchant fee "would be one of the effects" of increasing the volume on the network, he said.