Oct. 1, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Larkin: Doomsday Predictions on Debit Card Fees Were Off

A year ago, credit unions and community banks said they faced a threat so dire it could shut some of them down and make it harder for the rest to lend.

Things could get so bad, one group said, that it might hamstring the economy “by hindering much-needed economic stability and growth.”

Another argued this development would have a “horrendous impact” and be “tragic, not only for credit unions and their members, but also for any users of debit cards.”

The law these bankers detested so much has been in effect for almost six months. The sky has not fallen.

In fact, by many measures, community banks and credit unions are thriving as never before. It’s a good lesson in evaluating lobbyists’ hype during a heated battle on the Hill with billions of dollars at stake.

What the bankers were fulminating about was the Durbin amendment, which passed in 2010, aiming to bring fairness and competition to the broken debit card market.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sought to limit the ability of card networks such as Visa and MasterCard to fix the “swipe fees” banks charge merchants every time a customer uses a debit card in their store.

Visa and MasterCard centrally fix these hidden fees for their banks so there’s never competition. Prior to reform, every bank in the country charged the same fees, which are among the highest in the world. Merchants had to fall in line if they wanted to accept plastic.

Though technology makes processing transactions ever cheaper and more efficient, the fees keep going up — $16 billion for debit fees alone.

These fees burden merchants struggling with razor-thin margins. For some, it’s their second-largest operating expense after labor. And the fees bump up the price of everything consumers buy, from gas to groceries — more than an estimated $400 per family a year.

Those are persuasive numbers. The Durbin amendment got an overwhelming 64 votes — including 17 Republicans. It required the Federal Reserve to cut the fees on debit cards from an average 44 cents a transaction to a more reasonable level that banks, merchants and customers could live with.

And Durbin exempted 99 percent of all banks — any with less than $10 billion in assets. The big banks were targeted for reform because they collect the overwhelming majority of swipe fees. However, after the financial crash and bank bailout, which made big banks so unpopular, they turned to small community banks and credit unions to be their public face, to try to persuade Congress the Durbin amendment would cripple them.

The banks began an intense lobbying effort in what would become one of the biggest battles in Congress last year. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) introduced a bill to delay implementation of the Durbin amendment, which he said could be “disastrous, particularly for rural America.” The bill was defeated.

Small banks argued that being exempt from the cap would actually hurt them because merchants would discriminate against their cards if they continued to charge the higher swipe fee. That simply hasn’t happened. In fact, it’s not possible: Visa and MasterCard won’t allow merchants to treat some banks’ cards differently than others, and merchants have neither the desire nor capacity to try.

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