Thursday, June 09, 2011
Merchants triumphed over bankers in a battle for billions Wednesday as the Senate voted to let the Federal Reserve curb the merchants interchange fees. It’s unclear whether the nation's consumers were winners or losers.
As a result of the roll call, the Fed will be allowed to issue final rules on July 21 trimming the average 44 cents that banks charge for each debit card transaction. That fee, typically 1 to 2 percent of each purchase, produces an estimated $16 billion in annual revenue for banks and credit card companies.
Victorious merchants said the lowered fees should let them drop prices, banks said they could be forced to boost charges for things like checking accounts to make up for lost earnings and each side challenged the other's claims. Consumer groups were not a united front, either: While the consumer group U.S. PIRG said consumers would benefit, the Consumer Federation of America took no formal stance but said it was concerned about what both industries might do.
Travis B. Plunkett, the consumer federation's legislative director, said the amount of savings that stores pass on to consumers would depend on how competitive their markets are. He said he also worried that the Fed's current proposal might be too restrictive, which might tempt banks to "use that as an excuse to increase charges on customers they value the least, low- to moderate-income customers."
In Wednesday's vote, senators trying to thwart the Fed's rules needed 60 votes to prevail but fell six votes short, 54-45. That delivered a victory for Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, who muscled the provision into last year's financial overhaul law requiring the Fed's action.
Durbin's support on Wednesday represented an erosion from last year, when the Senate included Durbin's provision in the overhaul bill on a 64-33 vote. Much of the drop was explained by a dozen senators—including nine Democrats—who switched from backing Durbin in 2010 to voting to delay the Fed action on Wednesday.
Thirty-five Republicans joined 19 Democrats in backing the unsuccessful effort to block the Fed. Thirty-two Democrats, 12 Republicans and an independent voted to let the central bank move ahead, while Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., did not vote.
Wednesday's roll call shot down a proposal by Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Bob Corker, R-Tenn., that would have delayed the Fed rule for a year. In the meantime, the Fed and three other agencies would have studied whether the Fed's current proposal is fair and rewritten it if at least two agencies decided it wasn't.
Edmund Mierzwinski, consumer program director for US PIRG, which represents state public interest research groups, said some banks might curtail the rewards programs that many attach to their debit cards, such as awarding cash back or airline miles. But he said checking account fees would not rise.
"There will be competition," Mierzwinski said. "Banks will be forced to come up with innovative ways to lower costs in their card networks."
Camden R. Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, challenged that, saying the Senate vote would mean that "consumers of lower socio-economic status will get hammered" because bank fees would rise.
"Where do people think banks get the money to subsidize these products" like free checking accounts, he said. He also challenged assertions that stores would pass the savings from lower fees to customers.
"Does anybody not smoking dope believe merchants will pass some big windfall to consumers?" he said, adding later, "I mean, what are they going to cut prices by, a penny?"
Merchants, however, argue that they will be forced to lower prices to reflect the curbed debit card fees.