The Durbin Fee

Thom Lambert —  18 August 2011

Given the crucial role debit card “swipe” fees played in causing the recent financial crisis, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin insisted that the Dodd-Frank law (you know, the one that left Fannie and Freddie untouched) impose price controls on debit card transactions.  Ben Bernanke, who apparently doesn’t have enough on his plate, was tasked with determining banks’ processing and fraud-related costs and setting a swipe fee that’s just high enough to cover those costs.  Mr. Bernanke first decided that the aggregate cost totaled twelve cents per swipe.  After receiving over 11,000 helpful comments, Mr. Bernanke changed his mind.  Banks’ processing and fraud costs, he decided, are really 21 cents per swipe, plus 0.05 percent of the transaction amount.  In a few weeks (on October 1), the government will require banks to charge no more than that amount for each debit card transaction.

SHOCKINGLY, this price control seems to be altering other aspects of the deals banks strike with their customers.  The WSJ is reporting that a number of banks, facing the prospect of reduced revenues from swipe fees, are going to start charging customers an upfront, non-swipe fee for the right to make debit card purchases.  Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan Chase, Suntrust, Regions, and Bank of America have announced plans to try or explore these sorts of fees — “Durbin Fees,” you might call them.

Whoever would have guessed that Mr. Durbin’s valiant effort to prevent future financial crises by imposing brute price controls would have had these sorts of unintended consequences?

Fortunately for me, I can just switch to using my credit card, which will not be subject to the price controls imposed by Messrs Durbin and Bernanke.  Because I earn a decent salary and have a good credit history, this sort of a switch won’t really hurt me.  In fact, as banks increase the rewards associated with credit card use (in an attempt to encourage customers to use credit in place of debit cards), I may be able to earn some extra goodies. 

Of course, lots of folks — especially those who are out of work or have defaulted on some financial obligations because of the financial crisis and ensuing recession — don’t have access to cheap credit.  They can’t avoid Durbin Fees the way I (and Messrs Durbin and Bernanke) can.  Oh well, I’m sure Mr. Durbin and his colleagues can come up with a subsidy for those folks.

Thom Lambert

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I am a law professor at the University of Missouri Law School. I teach antitrust law, business organizations, and contracts. My scholarship focuses on regulatory theory, with a particular emphasis on antitrust.

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