Kevork Djansezian, Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 29: A customer uses a Bank of America ATM on September 29, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. Bank of America annouced its plans to start charging a $5 monthly fee for customers using their debit card for purchases starting early in 2012. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
Banking is likely to get a lot more expensive in the coming months. Already, the Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase have instituted fees for debit card transactions in some states. Industry analysts say consumers can expect the trend to expand and grow.
If you want to know who to blame for this, look no further than Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Sure, it took a majority of Congress to pass the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation that passed not long after the start of the recession, but it was Durbin's amendment to that law that inserted government into debit card interchange fees that previously had been set by the private market.
In the past, banks charged merchants an average of 44 cents per sale in order to process debit-card transactions. Durbin agreed with major retailers such as Wal-Mart, Walgreens and Target that this was excessive. So he inserted an amendment that called upon the Federal Reserve to set interchange fees. The Fed did so by cutting the fees to about 24 cents, including a penny for fraud prevention, which takes effect today.
It may be argued that the previous 44-cent fee was not based on the market cost of servicing debit transactions, but it's fairly safe to say that banks and merchants are better equipped to determine that price than Washington bureaucrats. The Nilson Report, which monitors debit-card payments, said banks earned $19 billion through those fees in 2009. With that figure cut in half, it is natural to expect banks to recover their losses in some way, and that means charging consumers. Decades of fee-free debit transactions and other services are in jeopardy.
Politicians and consumer advocates are likely to blame greedy bankers for this, arguing as Durbin did recently to reporters that Bank of America is trying to find "new ways to pad their profits by sticking it to its customers." That's an odd position to take at a time when the nation is trying to restore the strength of a banking system hobbled by a collapse in the housing market. While banks and financial institutions bear a good share of the blame for that collapse, the industry wouldn't likely anger its customer base deliberately and needlessly by imposing fees arbitrarily.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal on Friday, Todd Zywicki, a senior scholar at the Mercatus Center, said the ultimate outcome of the Durbin amendment will be a closure of many neighborhood branches as banks try to push customers away from costly debit cards and toward credit cards, which the Durbin amendment did not include. That, in turn, will likely lead large retailers to lobby Congress to regulate credit card transaction fees, as well.
As Halah Touryalai of Forbes noted, this is tug-of-war is between banks and merchants. Despite the rhetoric of politicians, it doesn't include consumers, who have much to lose.