Friday, October 5, 2012

Choppy Waters Ahead for Interchange

October 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the Durbin Amendment’s limitation on the amount large financial institutions ($10 billion or greater in assets) can collect in interchange (24 cents) for debit card transactions. Government agencies and industry typically wait several years for an important regulation to sort itself out in the marketplace. But, there’s nothing typical about the Durbin Amendment and one really needs a scorecard to understand who’s on first and what’s on second.

This week, retailers and merchants argued in DC federal court that the Federal Reserve Board’s final rule implementing the Durbin Amendment completely missed Congressional intent. The Durbin Amendment instructed the FRB to set debit interchange rates at par with the cost of clearing an electronic check and that it be “reasonable and proportional” to cost of processing the transaction. The FRB initially proposed to the set the rate at seven cents. But, after a public comment period, the Board settled on 21 cents with an ad valorem and fraud adjustment (effectively 24 cents). Thus, the merchants and retailers want the Board to start anew. In the past, courts have been reluctant to take this type of action under the Administrative Procedures Act. It is difficult to predict when the court will issue a ruling. And, expect the losing party to appeal.

Meantime, in New York, retailers and merchants are throwing cold water on a $7.5 billion proposed settlement with Visa and MasterCard on credit card interchange. The proposed settlement was agreed to in July and must be blessed by a judge before taking effect. Even Senator Durbin took the Senate Floor to suggest the proposed settlement was a grand give-away to the Visa, MasterCard and the banks. The proposed settlement would allow merchants to “surcharge” customers using credit cards as well as temporarily reducing interchange rates. Durbin, the American Bankers Association and the Retail Industry Leaders Association all traded letters to excoriate one another. It’s getting both nasty and personal.

Back in Washington, retailers are boasting in the press that Congress is ready to take on credit card interchange reform. The financial services community isn’t so sure given the bruising battle over the original Durbin Amendment in 2010 and the effort to repeal it in 2011 (unsuccessful obviously). Will Congress ever touch credit card interchange? Check back with me after the November elections.

As long as Dick Durbin remains a US Senator and as long as debit and credit card interchange rates remain above zero, the financial services industry needs to be vigilant on Capitol Hill and the media about the value of  electronic funds transfer (safe, secure and fast). And, EFT networks require investments to maintain and grow. 

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