Thank Wal-Mart for your new bank card fee
When Bank of America announced last week that it would charge $5 a month to customers who make purchases with their debit card, customers railed against the bank.
Many conservatives and libertarians said the anger should be aimed at Congress and the Obama administration, which, through last year’s Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill, effectively outlawed the old debit card business model, spurring Bank of America to make this change.
But the real culprit is Walmart and the retail lobby, which used government to squeeze banks and fatten their own bottom line. Walmart won, banks lost, and now customers are stuck with a new monthly fee.
Here’s the background: Whenever you use a credit card or debit card to buy something at a store, the credit card processor (like Visa or Mastercard) and the issuing bank (like Bank of America or Chevy Chase Bank) both take a cut. The store may only get $9.70 on a $10 purchase.
How is that rate — the “interchange fee” — set? Until this year, it was set by market forces. Visa and Mastercard offer stores a service that facilitates sales and brings in more business. In return, they demand a cut of the sale. Walmart and Joe’s Corner Store aren’t required to accept debit cards or credit cards, but they do, which means that they decided the price was worth it.
Retailers, of course, wish the card issuers and processors would provide this service for free. Businessmen are always looking for a better deal. The businessmen in this case decided to employ regulatory robbery to get their way. Led by Walmart and the Retail Industry Leaders Association, retailers pushed for a federal cap on interchange fees.
When the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill came up, Sen. Dick Durbin introduced an amendment giving the Federal Reserve the authority to cap the interchange fee on debit cards (but not credit cards). Durbin, in the misleading populist mold of his fellow Illinoisan, Barack Obama, painted himself as the scourge of the special interests, because he was battling against the banks. But some other special interests were firmly in Durbin’s corner: the big retailers.
Melissa Merz, a former press secretary for Durbin, lobbied for Walmart on the financial regulation bill, as did former Durbin legislative aide Donni Turner. The Durbin alumna were both at the Podesta Group, and the firm’s lobbying filings indicate both lobbied on “Senate financial services regulatory reform legislation.”
At the same time, these retail lobbyists were helping fund Durbin’s campaign. Daily Caller reporter Jonathan Strong wrote “one month after the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill passed, both of those former aides, Melissa Merz and Donni Turner, attended an Aug. 10 fundraiser for Durbin hosted by the Podesta Group. A group of lobbyists mostly from the Podesta Group gave Durbin $5,000 on Aug. 10 and a $5,000 check from Walmart’s PAC cleared shortly afterward, on Aug. 27.”
The returns to the retail industry were huge. As the Federal Reserve prepared its rules setting the maximum per-purchase interchange fee, a Home Depot executive told investors on a conference call “Based on the Fed’s draft regulations, we think the benefit to the Home Depot could be $35 million a year.”
That $35 million Home Depot gain is a $35 million loss for banks and credit-card processors. Their interchange revenue was central to the business model that allowed banks to offer free checking and free debit-card use.
That business model is now illegal, and so Bank of America has switched to the model they find second best. If they can’t make the stores cover the costs of debit cards, make the consumers pay a share. The American Bankers Association calls Bank of America’s $5-a-month charge “the Durbin fee.”
Let’s see, you were paying a hidden 3% surcharge for using your debit card, and now you’re paying a flat $5 per month fee. Meanwhile, people using cash are no longer subsidizing debit card users by paying the same hidden surcharge.
And that’s unfair? $5 a month seems pretty reasonable, especially if you spend more than $200 per month using your debit card.
I’m not a big fan of banks, but there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
BTW – While Walmart may be the biggest single beneficiary, all those small businesses (like my local liquor store) also benefit.