Merchants Win Debit-Card Fee Battle
Members of the House and Senate recently announced that debit-card fee cuts would be included in the final version of the overhaul bill—a hit to the financial industry, which had strongly opposed any such further regulation.
Retailers are thrilled though, as they stand to gain significantly from the revised legislation, and as they realize the fruits of a long and challenging battle against the big banks and credit card companies. The actual amount of reduction that will be seen is not completely clear, but there are experts that predict new fees of 50% or less than in previous practice. Big retailers and small retailers alike will be affected.
Restaurant owners, convenience store owners and other retailers have been concerned for a very long time about the so-called interchange fees charged by banks for MasterCard and Visa debit cards, such fees averaging 1% to 2% of the total transaction amount. It costs significantly less to process paper checks, and the risks of debit cards are no higher than with checks. Countries like Germany, France, Mexico and Brazil all have regulations in place and in Europe fees are half what they are here in the US.
“Every dollar we pay the credit-card companies is a dollar we can’t pass on to consumers or use to hire employees or build more stores,” said Scott Mason, vice president of government affairs for home-improvement retailer Lowe’s. “Literally you are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars.”
For their parts, banks argue against the legislation, their main contention being that they will have to make up for the lost revenue somewhere, alluding to the possibilities of raising other fees or getting rid of rewards programs.
Community banks and credit unions will be exempt from some of the regulations, but they are still siding with the big banks, as they feel they wouldn’t be able to remain competitive unless they voluntarily reduced their interchange rates to match those forced upon the larger institutions. MasterCard general counsel, Noah Hanft said, “We continue to have concerns that the ultimate outcome of this legislation would be the passing of merchant acceptance costs to consumers at a time when Americans can least afford it.”
In May the Senate approved an amendment by Illinois Senator Richard Durbin which would have the government review the fees on debit cards as part of its overhaul package. The amendment was not part of the original House bill that had already passed hearing.
The new language does clarify matters for Visa and MasterCard as it was noted that the legislation was meant to apply to only debit cards, not the fees paid in respect of traditional credit cards and the fees that the debit-card processing networks charge to banks.
The most recent deal reached will keep most of Mr. Durbin’s proposal in the final legislation to be approved by both houses, but gives the Fed the authority to look at a broader range of factors, including fraud prevention costs, when deciding what fees card-issuing banks can appropriately charge to merchants.
Retailers stand by their assertion that the fee-cut windfall will be shared with customers. Home Depot, among those lobbying most strongly for the fee cuts, said: “Any relief as it pertains to these fees will give the Home Depot the ability to reduce our cost of doing business…Such benefits are likely to include lower prices and investment in the business to better serve customers.”
Wal-Mart was not inclined to comment or be as vocal as Home Depot, but based on a Neilson Group’s estimate, roughly 17% of Wal-Mart transactions are now handled through debit cards, which means the retailer could see savings of over $250 million a year if the regulation is passed. Other industry insiders feel $250 million is actually a conservative estimate, considering the company’s reported $300 billion revenue estimate last year in the U.S. alone.
The banking industry has belabored the point that they feel the majority of any windfall would just line each company’s pockets, not result in consumer savings. A report by Congress’s Government Accountability Office found that similar reductions in countries like Australia did not evidence any clear cost savings for consumers.
Ken Clayton, senior vice president of card policy for the American Bankers Association pointed out, “Who ends up feeling the burden from this? Financial institutions lose a revenue stream that allows them to offer other services to low-income consumers.”