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June 17th, 2010 by Jamie Estep

Debit Interchange Regulation is Already Going to Hurt Consumers

Filed in: Industry News |

About a week ago, the US Government passed financial reform bills that included regulating debit card fees and regulating merchant’s ability to surcharge or set minimum and maximum purchase amounts. What congress has never look at is the repercussions of regulating something like interchange, even if it’s just for debit. Recent events have shown us a glimpse at the future of debit cards.

I read a great article about Durbin’s amendment in which I found out that free checking accounts were virtually non-existent before the invention of signature (or offline) debit. Signature debit is where a merchant processes a debit card like a credit card without requiring a PIN number. With the invention of signature debit, banks had a steady source of income from debit interchange that was directly attached to their customer’s bank accounts. With this additional income, came the invention of the free checking account. Right now most consumers and small businesses use free checking accounts, which are partially subsidized by fees the bank receives from signature debit interchange. These fees also help pay for chargeback investigations, and help pay for account features that you would have had to pay for before there were free checking accounts.

Now that congress is capping debit interchange, we can expect changes with regard to free checking account practices. Since these accounts can no longer be subsidized by signature debit interchange, banks are going to have create monthly fees for checking accounts. Chargeback investigations also cost banks huge amounts, so we can expect further fees will be charged to cover the additional costs for these. Right now, BOFA and others have announced that they plan on charging fees for checking accounts once the new regulations go into effect. Goodbye, free checking…

What I think is the biggest flaw to the debit regulation, and of much greater significance in the overall picture, is the double standard that congress has proposed. The law limits the amount banks can charge for debit interchange. At the same time, it exempts financial institutions with less than $10B in assets in attempt to help these smaller institutions out, but at the same time allows merchant to discriminate against types of payment at their discretion. A thoughtful move, but because of the second part it will have a near 100% opposite effect than planned.

Merchants will now inherently be more inclined to, and be allowed to, accept debit cards with the lower rates, which will be the big bank’s cards! Instead of helping credit unions and small banks, congress instead created the perfect avenue to put them out of the debit card picture. While it’s unrealistic to assume that the smaller banks will not be issuing debit cards at all, it is completely reasonable to assume that retailers (especially the large ones) will favor and may only accept cards from large banks that they pay less for. We’ll start seeing signs like only Bank of America debit cards are accepted here, and congress not only made it completely legal for merchants to do this, but they created the system to facilitate it!

With one swipe the future shows the end of free checking accounts, and the end of credit union’s issuing their own debit cards.

I’ll readily admit that I am partial when it comes to regulation of my industry, but how could congress have created something so blatantly damaging to credit unions and small banks in the US. As soon as the credit unions learned about the details of the rules , they began lobbying. However, the wording and details were published after the rules were passed, so to stop it now is more a prayer than anything else. It doesn’t take an expert to know that large retailers follow the savings, just like consumers…

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