Wednesday, December 6, 2023

FTC 'junk fees' proposal needs tightening

The CFPB is attacking junk fees in banking. The FTC rule
would govern consumer sales transactions. CFPB image.

Today I submitted the following comment to the Federal Trade Commission on the notice of proposed rule-making regarding "Trade Regulation Rule on Unfair or Deceptive Fees." These are the "junk fees" that the Biden Administration has pledged to combat.

The NPRM was published on November 9, 2023. You too can comment at the Federal Register website. You can bet that business will be crying loudly about the impracticality of simply telling customers what the price of a thing is.

I support the proposed rule, though I don't think it goes far enough. My comment focuses on select points of ambiguity on which already I foresee business intransigence.

Elsewhere in the world, even tax is part of a price. When my friends and family visit from abroad, they are flummoxed by the repeated experience of seeing a price and then having to pay more. For some reason we countenance this in America, as if in some kind of wild West approach to market regulation, it's OK for a seller to put a gun to the consumer's head at the point of sale. As I say in my comment, that is not what "free market" means.

December 6, 2023

I support the proposed rule because I support free-market transaction and regulatory policy. A free market requires transparency around the terms of transaction to both buyer and seller. When a buyer is surprised by junk fees, that is, fees that are applied to a transaction after the customer believes that she or he has concluded negotiation of the terms, the seller is able to conclude the transaction upon an unfair advantage. It is an appropriate role for government regulation to level the marketplace by ensuring transparency, and that means upfront total pricing.

I note [a] point of potential ambiguity, and, thus, potential abuse by sellers. In the proposed rule, “Government charges” are defined as

all fees or charges imposed on consumers by a Federal, State, or local government agency, unit, or department. This definition covers only fees or charges imposed by the government on consumers and does not encompass fees or charges that the government imposes on a business and that the business chooses to pass on to consumers.

I anticipate argument over two points.

First, I expect that quasi-governmental actors, such as a corporations created by statute, and government contractors, such as service concessionaires, are not agencies of government. Sellers might disagree.

Second, if a governmental actor compels a seller to report and pay a per consumer or per transaction fee, I expect that the fee is nonetheless a fee that the business “chooses to pass on to consumers.” Sellers might disagree.

By way of example, I have just made a car reservation with Avis at BWI. My upfront price was $104.82.

On the payment page, the following fees were added:

  • Concession Recovery Fee (11.11%): 12.27
  • Customer Facility Charge-3.75/day: 7.50
  • Transportation Facility Charge-2.25/day: 4.50
  • Vehicle License Fee-0.56/day: 1.12
  • Total Tax: 14.97

The additional fees sum $40.36, which is a 38.5% markup on the upfront price.

All of these fees are sanctioned by Maryland law. The former two fees are passed on by Avis to the Maryland Airport Authority (MAA), and the latter fee is, self-evidently, a tax. I do not know the beneficiary of the penultimate two fees, but I assume that the Transportation Facility Charge goes to an MAA shuttle contractor.

So first, is the MAA contractor a “government agency, unit, or department” under the proposed rule? I suggest no, because contractors and concessionaires, like quasi-governmental “sue or be sued” entities created by Congress, are expected to comply with the rules of the competitive marketplace when they act in a commercial capacity. However, Avis might disagree, arguing that the fee is set by the MAA. The MAA is a governmental unit of Maryland state government.

Second, are these fees “impose[d] on a business[,] and … the business chooses to pass [them] on to consumers”? I suggest yes, because Avis owes these fees to the MAA, et al., but is not obligated to pass them on to consumers. As long as Avis accounts for the fees with the government, Avis remains free to price its services as it pleases. Moreover, to calculate the state tax on the car rental, 11.5%, the tax basis includes the fees. Thus, it seems plain to me that the fees represent the price of service and are not akin to a tax that is imposed upon the transaction. However, Avis might disagree, arguing that the seller is a mere conduit for fees set by the MAA.

I suggest that the junk-fee rule is virtually impotent in a broad range of transactions if it does not address fees in a transaction such as this one. While I might like to see tax and all incorporated into upfront pricingas it is in countries the world overI understand that that is not the American custom. But any fee besides tax on sale or service should be disclosed to a customer as part of an upfront price. Otherwise, the proposed rule is completely undermined. I must go all the way to the payment page of the Avis transaction before I discover the actual price, a substantial markup, for the transaction I desire.

I hope you will clarify that government contractors and comparable quasi-governmental actors are not governmental actors within the meaning of the proposed rule. And I hope you will clarify that government-sanctioned fees that are incorporated into the tax basis of a transaction, even if imposed on a per customer or per transaction basis, are fees that a seller “chooses to pass on to consumers.”

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