RBI : No New Co-Branded Credit Cards from Federal, South Indian Banks 

The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has taken a significant step towards strengthening co-branded credit card regulations in India. Effective March 12, 2024, Federal Bank and South Indian Bank, which collectively hold a substantial market share in co-branded credit cards (estimated at 15-20% by industry analysts), have been barred from issuing new cards due to non-compliance with recently revised RBI guidelines. This action emphasizes the RBI’s commitment to fostering a more transparent and responsible credit card market in India, potentially impacting millions of new applicants who might have considered co-branded card options from these institutions.

Industry Estimates and Potential Impact

Industry data suggests that co-branded credit cards constitute roughly 10-12% of the total 87 million credit cards currently in circulation across India. With Federal and South Indian Banks holding a significant portion of this market segment, the suspension of new issuances could have a substantial impact on potential new cardholders.

Potential Areas of Non-Compliance

While the RBI hasn’t explicitly disclosed the specific reasons behind the issuance freeze, industry experts point to potential areas of non-compliance that may have triggered this regulatory intervention. These areas include:

  • Data Governance: Recent regulatory changes emphasize clear data ownership structures and access protocols between banks and their co-branding partners (CBPs). Concerns might surround the transparency of data sharing practices or the extent of CBP control over customer data held by these banks, potentially impacting millions of cardholders. The RBI is likely seeking a more robust framework for data handling within co-branded credit card programs to mitigate consumer privacy risks.
  • End-Use Monitoring: The RBI’s recent amendments mandate robust systems for monitoring credit card spending. The banks may have fallen short in demonstrating a sufficiently strong framework to track how co-branded credit card funds are being utilized. This is particularly important as co-branded cards are often tied to specific spending categories or promotional offers. The RBI likely wants to ensure these cards are used as intended and that consumers are not unknowingly incurring unnecessary debt.
  • Network Restrictions: The RBI recently prohibited card issuers from entering into agreements with card networks that limit their ability to utilize other networks. This could be relevant if co-branded card agreements offered by Federal and South Indian Bank restricted access to certain networks, potentially limiting merchant acceptance or increasing transaction fees for their cardholders. The RBI’s move promotes greater competition within the network space, potentially benefitting consumers with wider network coverage and potentially lower fees.

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Existing Customers Unaffected, Resumption Timeline Uncertain

Both Federal Bank and South Indian Bank have issued statements assuring existing co-branded credit cardholders, numbering in the millions, that their services will continue uninterrupted. They can expect to receive the benefits and fulfill their obligations associated with their existing cards. However, new applications for co-branded credit cards from either bank are currently on hold.

Addressing Deficiencies and Moving Forward

Federal Bank has acknowledged the need for rectifications and stated they are working diligently to achieve full compliance with the RBI’s regulations. They aim to resume issuing new co-branded credit cards after receiving regulatory clearance. South Indian Bank hasn’t provided a specific timeline for resuming new offerings, but they did confirm working towards meeting the RBI’s directives. The speed with which these banks can address the compliance issues will determine when new co-branded card offerings become available again.

Industry-Wide Impact and the Future of Co-Branded Credit Cards

The RBI’s action serves as a strong message to the entire credit card industry, emphasizing the importance of adhering to evolving regulations. It is likely to prompt other banks with co-branded credit card programs (estimated to be around 70 variants according to industry reports) to review their practices and ensure they comply with the RBI’s guidelines. This could lead to stricter industry-wide practices, potentially benefitting consumers through greater transparency and potentially more consumer-friendly co-branded credit card offerings in the future.

This news also coincides with other recent regulatory changes by the RBI in the credit card sector, including restrictions on commercial credit cards and a shift from penal interest to a penal charge regime. These developments suggest a broader push by the RBI to strengthen consumer protection and ensure a more transparent and responsible credit card market in India.

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