Can Durbin Debit Rates Go Even Lower?

August 12, 2013

A new U.S District Court ruling could lead to major changes in debit card processing fees. On July 31, U.S District Judge Richard Leon swept aside the Federal Reserve’s 2011 implementation of the Durbin Amendment. Passed in 2010, this amendment to the Dodd-Frank law was intended to limit the upward trajectory of debit processing rates. According to Leon, the Fed’s 2011 regulations directly counteracted the original intent of the Durbin Amendment. Though the Fed capped the base rate for debit processing fees at 21 cents, they raised debit rates for transactions under $12. Essentially, the Fed lowered the debit price for large transactions while raising them substantially on small transactions.

In general, debit card caps are highly advantageous for retail businesses. However, the current implementation of the Durbin debit amendment creates grave concerns for many retailers. It is sensible to lower debit fees at a time when many retail companies are struggling with low consumer demand. Months will pass before the nation sees new, concrete debit processing rules. In the meantime, the response to Judge Leon’s ruling starkly illustrates a growing conflict between the retail industry and major banks. In this struggle to define the costs of merchant services, both sides claim to represent the best interests of the public. However, the banking industry is so politically influential and entrenched that it is hard to see this industry as truly vulnerable or consumer-focused. Retailers are achieving broader public support as they tout their intentions to lower costs for ordinary Americans.

Judge Richard Leon

To be fair, it is demonstrably true that banks could lose enormous profits in the wake of Judge Leon’s ruling. Undoubtedly, the banking industry will pass some of these costs on to consumers in the form of higher fees and tighter restrictions. A strong, profitable American banking industry is vital for the United States and the global economy. At the same time, history has shown that the banking industry is far less volatile than the retail sector. When banks are in danger of failing, they can often use their political influence to gain unique concessions and loans from the government. In stark contrast, retailers must stand on their own during problematic times. In light of this power imbalance, the public may well benefit from retailer-friendly debit price controls.

The new ruling on Durbin debit rates represents a fascinating turn of events. However, only time will tell if Judge Leon will have the final word in Durbin implementation. The Federal Reserve and large banks have many more tools at their disposal in their quest to control the state of debit processing fees.

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