Banks Ordered to Lower Retailers' Debit Fees

The Federal Reserve is set to limit the fees that banks charge retailers for swiping debit cards to 21 cents, a higher cap than initially proposed.

Banks succeeded in convincing the Fed that its initial proposal of 12 cents was too low after a six-month lobbying blitz. They currently charge an average of 44 cents per swipe.

The Fed will formally adopt the rule Wednesday, which was required under the financial regulatory law enacted last year. The rule takes effect Oct 1, later than expected.

In addition to the 21-cent cap, the rule will also allow banks to charge a fraction more to cover the costs of fraud prevention.

The move to limit swipe fees pitted the nation's largest banks and payment processors like MasterCard Inc. and Visa Inc. against Wal-Mart and retailers of all sizes. The decision to settle on a higher cap pushed up bank and network stocks in late afternoon trading on Wall Street.

Banks said roughly $16 billion was at stake if the 12-cent cap took effect. That would be more than 80 percent of the $19.7 billion in debit transaction fees paid by merchants in 2009, according to the Nilson Report, which tracks the payments industry.

The banks warned that they would have to make up for some revenue lost by shifting costs to consumers. Many already eliminated unrestricted free checking accounts, and some ended debit card rewards programs. Other potential actions include annual fees for using debit cards, which are already being tested in some markets.

The higher cap may lead some to avoid taking such action.

Merchant groups said that their savings would be passed on to customers in the form of lower prices. But many questioned whether retailers would simply pocket the difference. Some big retailer stocks declined late in Wednesday's trading session.

Banks and credit unions with assets under $10 billion are exempt from the rule, under the premise that they rely more on swipe fees, also known as interchange fees. But those smaller institutions argued that the exemption won't help. That's because it invites merchants to discriminate against their cards. It also leaves the decision on which network to use to process the transaction in the hands of merchants, who could choose to bypass networks that charge higher fees.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke acknowledged small banks' concerns during a May 12 hearing by the Senate Banking Committee. He said allowing them to charge more than big banks for processing debt card transactions could make debit cards issued by smaller banks less attractive to merchants.

"There's good reason to be concerned about it," Bernanke said. It could result in some smaller banks "being less profitable or even failing."

Separately Wednesday, a federal appeals court in South Dakota ruled that a lower court judge was correct to deny a preliminary injunction against the fee limits taking effect.

The case challenging the regulations' constitutionality was brought in October by Minnesota-based TCF National Bank, the unit of TCF Financial Corp., considered the first bank to offer free checking accounts. TCF is among the banks that no longer offer free checking without requirements such as using direct deposit or maintaining minimum balances.

In a twist, TCF's attorneys argued that the provision of the law exempting small banks and credit unions gave those unaffected banks an unfair advantage.

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I can't wait to see my .23 savings from any retailer that was part of this nonsense. I also can't wait to see my first pink flying pig.

June 30 2011 at 10:00 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

See how much good Olaimo's plan to release strategic oil reserves worked... Oil is 95.00/barrel and climbing.

June 30 2011 at 9:44 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bcopleyjigs's comment

It is probably those greedy--nasty speculators that keep pushing prices higher. Lord knows it can't be fundamentally driven. Not in this administration. There always has to be a villain.

June 30 2011 at 10:02 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Felix Branson

The new debit limit benefits exclusively retailers, although their CEOs and lobbyists are telling us that consumers will be the ones who will reap the biggest advantage from the cap on debit fees. Any revenues lost by card issuers will translate directly into a positive revenue flow of an equal aggregate amount for retailers.

It is very unlikely that any of the windfall will be passed on to consumers. Anyway, even if that did somehow happen, consumers would still be net losers, due to the fact that banks will inevitably make up for their interchange-related losses by generating higher revenues elsewhere. Actually, they are already doing it.

June 29 2011 at 7:13 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Interesting...Bernanke follows everything Obama requests including stimulus bank bailouts, QE1,
QE2 and now more stimulus is under consideration to artificially increase the economy to fool people into thinking Obama is doing a great job. The banks were supposed to lend the money for business credit to expand and hire new workers. That did not happen. New jobs were supposed to be created by the Unions for teachers, fire, police and city workers. That did not happen becuase Obama just gave the money to the Unions to hold on to the workers they already have and then the Unions can contribute to Obama's re-election. There are so few jobs being created by the private sector that Obama now wants the US government to increase their work force to decrease unemployment. How is this possible when the US taxpayer pays for these government jobs? Obama actually believes people are either ignorant, stupid or just don't care. Obama will not be re-elected because people can see that he does not want this country to be great. I honestly believe Obama wants to transform our country into a vast land of welfare and entitlements. Think about all that Obama says about our people and no one person should be wealthy....share the wealth. Does Obama share his wealth ?????

June 29 2011 at 6:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Bernanke said that some small banks may fail. He should have thought of this before the bank bailout which cost hundreds of small banks and their branckes to fail and millions of workers lost their jobs. Wasn't he along with Pualson the guys who bankrupt bear strearns and Goldman Sacks?

June 29 2011 at 6:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply