Visa U.S.A. has decided to raise a crucial fee that banks pay each other to process credit card transactions.

The increase, adopted by Visa's board on Wednesday, affects the interchange fee, which a merchant's bank pays to a cardholder's

Banks are likely to pass along the fee increase to merchants.

The price change, which takes effect next April, represents an overall hike of approximately 4%, a Visa spokesman said.

A Calculated Risk

Interchange prices can vary greatly, however, according to type of merchant and method of processing. Visa's 1993-94 schedule lists seven merchant categories in which the interchange fee can vary, and two other categories for the Visa business card.

Visa is taking a calculated risk in raising its prices. Interchange rates of the bank card giants have been substantially lower than those charged by their main competitor, American Express.

In fact, Visa has made that discrepancy a cornerstone of its marketing efforts when it asks merchants to promote use of its cards.

Visa contends that its advantage over the travel-and-entertainment card giant will not be altered by the rate changes.

"Under our new rate structure, we will still be significantly lower than American Express' rates," said David Brancoli, the Visa spokesman.

'Orderly and Gradual'

The revised pricing "better reflects the costs and revenues of the business," Mr. Brancoli said, citing a plan adopted in 1989 to modify fees "in an orderly and gradual way."

With the economy on the mend, he said, Visa is confident that the market can bear the rate hike.

Nevertheless, the decision represents a turnaround for the San Mateo, Calif.-based card association.

Last year, as many merchants publicly rebelled against the high cost of accepting American Express cards, Visa and MasterCard International held their interchange rates steady.

MasterCard, the second-largest bank card group, plans an announcement about its rates this summer, a spokeswoman said.

Under the new Visa price schedule, standard interchange rates will be about 11 cents more than 2% of a sale. This means that a merchant's bank will pay a card-issuing bank about $1.41 for processing a card sale of $65, which is about average.

The current standard interchange rate on a $65 transaction is $1.35.

Separate Fees for Debit Cards

For the first time, the new schedule sets a separate interchange rate for debit and business card transactions - growing markets for bank card groups.

Currently, no distinction is made in transaction fees between standard credit cards and Visa's corporate or debit cards.

The rates for processing Visa Debit cards will be lower than those for standard credit cards, Visa said, in order to encourage merchants to accept the debit cards. (The new schedule does not affect interchange fees for Interlink, Visa's fully electronic debit card system.)

However, interchange rates for Visa business cards will be higher. Visa hopes that this will encourage bank issuers to promote business cards more aggressively.

Battling Chargebacks

The lowest interchange rates under the new schedule will be for transactions handled by merchants who take advantage of Visa's PS/2000 processing system. The new system is designed to increase efficiency and decrease the chargebacks that occur when cardholders dispute charges on their bills.

Rates for PS/2000 transactions will range from about 1.05% of a sale to 1.25% of sale and are guaranteed through March 31, 1996.

"The key is that we are introducing the next generation of automation and we are committed to it," Mr. Brancoli said. "Keeping that rate to 1996 is a big commitment."

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