In October 2010, when the Justice Department announced a legal settlement with Visa (NYSE: V) and MasterCard (MA), Attorney General Eric Holder took the unusual step of acknowledging the deal was toothless.

The settlement was designed to allow U.S. retailers to steer their customers toward lower-cost payment cards, but even the agreement's government architects expected its impact to be trivial without the additional cooperation of American Express (AXP).

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