MasterCard International Inc. sounded tough this week in raising the competitive stakes against American Express Co., but a closer examination reveals more nuance in the bank card association's message.

By voting last weekend to prohibit U.S. members from offering the cards of nonbank competitors, MasterCard joined Visa U.S.A. in a united front against American Express, Dean Witter, Discover and Co., and others who covet comarketing or cobranding deals with banks.

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