Politics & Policy

The Durbin Fee

Hold on to your wallet: The Durbin Amendment goes into effect Saturday. The once-obscure amendment to the Dodd-Frank financial-reform bill limits “interchange fees,” which banks charge to merchants for providing the service that allows stores to accept debit-card payments. The fees were cut by some 80 percent, which makes it less profitable for banks to offer debit-card services. So the banks have done the natural thing and begun to transfer the fee from merchants to their customers, with Bank of America announcing a new $5-per-month fee for debit-card users.

Naturally, the amendment’s author, Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) is in a rage, complaining that the banks are “sticking it” to consumers. He ought not be surprised: What is happening is precisely what was predicted by industry experts and by the banks themselves. Running a debit-card network costs money, and banks are not going to do it for free or suffer reduced profits gladly. As is usually the case, what we have here is one special-interest lobby (retailers) using its political clout to prevail over a marketplace rival (the banks) to secure for itself a bigger piece of the action. Mr. Durbin, being a senator and a Democrat, cannot resist the urge to stick his nose into controversies better left to the marketplace. Not coincidentally, one of the nation’s largest retailers, Walgreens, is located in his state, and the firm’s CEO lobbied hard for the new federal price controls on debit-card fees.

The new fees are a textbook example of the unintended consequences of regulation — unintended, yes, but not unforeseeable.

Indeed, they were almost universally foreseen. In the Michigan state legislature — hardly a hotbed of free-market fundamentalism — a resolution calling for abandoning the Durbin amendment was passed unanimously by both houses. Sen. Darwin Booher, who sponsored the Michigan resolution, said at the time: “I sponsored this resolution to send a strong message to Congress: Stop any rules from being adopted that would harm our community banks, credit unions, and the millions of Michigan consumers that use them. As currently proposed, the rules would force credit unions and community banks to absorb the costs of fraud and data security. That would result in less credit available for job providers, increased fees, and the ending of popular services like free checking.”

Free checking accounts were the first casualty, with almost every major bank in the country restricting that popular option to larger accounts and imposing new fees on customers who keep lower balances. Again, Bank of America was the first mover, a position it was impelled to take in no small part by the fact that the new regulation forced it to suffer a $10 billion writedown of future earnings. “I’ve seen more regulation in last 30 months than in last 30 years,” Robert Hammer, a banking expert, told the Associated Press. “The bottom line for banks is shifting enormously, swiftly and deeply, and they’re not going to sit by twiddling their thumbs. They’re going to change.” Unintended, not unforeseeable.

Dodd-Frank is a bad piece of legislation, and the Durbin Amendment may not even be the worst part of it. But when Americans start seeing those $5 monthly fees on their bank statements (and if you get a paper bank statement, expect a fee for that, too), we should thank Senator Durbin, who did it all to save us money.


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