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Banks Get a Break From the Fed. Will You?


Every time a consumer uses a debit card at a store, the retailer pays the card issuer. That fee – called a swipe or interchange fee – was supposed to drop from about 44 cents to 12 cents on July 21, according to recent government regulations. But yesterday, the Federal Reserve softened its position: the fees will still drop, but only to around 24 cents.

No one’s happy. Consumer advocates expected the fee to be lower. So did the retail industry. The banking industry, which is the relative winner, says the Fed’s decision recognizes the range of debit-card costs they incur, but they still think the swipe-fee cap is too low.

Here’s our question: In anticipation of the more austere fee restrictions, banks have been raising fees on bank accounts and slashing debit card rewards programs to offset what they say will be the loss in revenue. So now that that’s not going to be so bad, are they going to roll back the new fees?

Not likely. The American Bankers Association points out that this final rule still represents a 45% loss in revenue that banks use to provide low-cost accounts, fight fraud and to maintain payments systems. The new debit-card interchange fee is still low enough that banks are going to feel it, says John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education at, a credit-monitoring site. “I certainly don’t think this will change banks’ strategies.” To the contrary, he says consumers can expect to see more fees popping up on their bank accounts, debit cards and elsewhere.

And credit unions – which have historically offered low fee banking options and served as a popular alternative for consumers to the large banks — are now preparing to roll out their own changes as well. They’re considering higher fees on checking accounts and possibly cutting back on services, says a spokeswoman for National Association of Federal Credit Unions. A NAFCU survey earlier this year found that nearly 65% of credit unions are considering eliminating free checking to help mitigate lost revenue from the new debit card rule.

The Fed’s decision today also delays the implementation of the new swipe fees from July 21 to October 1. (Note: Banks have not delayed raising fees.) In theory, retailers were supposed to start passing along their new savings to consumers starting next month. But given today’s announcement the retail industry now says those savings will be smaller than anticipated. “Retailers can only pass on what they get,” a spokesman for the National Retail Federation says.


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    • The latest version of the Fed’s final debit interchange rule has not changed much. It is still good news for retailers and bad one for issuers. It is also still bad news for consumers who are already feeling the rule’s side effects, even before it has taken effect. Anticipating lower revenues, banks have begun creating new or expanding existing revenue sources. As a result, free checking accounts are going away, new bank fees are being introduced and old ones increased, interest rates are being hiked, rewards are being slashed, etc.

      So the damage to consumers is already done and it will not be reversed, even if the Fed eventually decided not to change the interchange status quo after all. What we have here is a government-mandated redistribution of revenues from one industry to another, something it has no business doing.

    • Seems like the problem here is that there are costs involved and neither the retailers nor the banks want to pay or them. I can’t blame them, since the goal of any business is to keep expenses as low as possible and to maximize income. No matter what happens, it’s the consumer who will end up paying.

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to or tweet @SMPayDirt.