By Simon Johnson
As a lobby group, the largest U.S. banks have been dominant throughout the latest boom-bust-bailout cycle – capturing the hearts and minds of the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the support of most elected representatives on Capitol Hill. Their reign, however, is finally being seriously challenged by another potentially powerful group – an alliance of retailers, big and small – now running TV ads (http://youtu.be/9IUt-lY-XgM, by Americans for Job Security), web content (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DiKoFzS_lXs, by American Family Voices), and this very effective powerful radio spot directly attacking “too big to fail” banks: http://www.savejobs.org/audio18.html.
The immediate issue is the so-called Durbin Amendment – a requirement in the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation that would lower the interchange fees that banks collect when anyone buys anything with a debit card. Retailers pay the fees but these are then reflected in the prices faced by consumers.
The US has very high debit card “swipe” fees – 44 cents on average but up to 98 cents for some kinds of cards. These fees are per transaction – representing a significant percent of many purchases but posing a particular problem for smaller merchants. This is estimated to be around $16-17 billion in annual revenue.
Other countries, such as Australia and members of the European Union, have already taken action to reduce interchange fees – because the cost of such transactions is actually quite low (think about it: the “interchange fee” for checks, which also draw directly on bank deposits, is exactly zero). The United States severely lags behind comparable countries in terms of how consumers are treated by banks in this regard. Continue reading