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Another Swipe Fee Battle Unfolding

by Bill Hardekopf

Another major dispute on interchange fees could take place, and this one may have new, painful consequences on consumers. This time, the battle centers around the swipe fee that retailers pay on credit card transactions.

According to CNBC, there is an antitrust suit between five million retailers and Visa, MasterCard and 13 large banks, including Citi, Bank of America, Chase, Capital One, U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo. Retailers claim that banks and the payment systems have unfairly worked together to increase the amount of the interchange fee retailers pay on credit card transactions.

The amount that each retailer pays as a swipe fee varies widely but the industry average is approximately 2 percent. This antitrust suit could cut that figure by three-quarters down to 0.5 percent. That would be one more devastating revenue blow to the banks as well as Visa and MasterCard, leading to billions of dollars in lost income.

Last year, the Durbin amendment went into effect on October 1, cutting the interchange fee on debit card transactions from an average of 44 cents to no more than 21 cents (plus 0.05 percent of the transaction, with the possibility of an additional cent if banks comply with fraud prevention procedures). Banks tried to make up for this lost revenue by implementing a monthly debit card fee which led to consumer outrage. Banks eventually rescinded this monthly fee.

If the retailers win this antitrust suit, it could have have a significant impact on consumers:

  • Banks will lose billions of dollars at a time when they have already suffered significant cutbacks in revenue. Whenever banks lose revenue in one area, they try to make up for it in another area and that always comes at the expense of the consumer. An increase in existing fees, the introduction of new fees, and an increase in the credit card interest rates are changes that could be pushed by banks.

  • A significant decrease in credit card reward programs. The lucrative cash back and airline mile rewards will likely decline. Most banks eliminated debit card rewards when the Durbin amendment passed. The same could happen with credit card  programs if retailers win this suit.

  • A likely decrease in attractive balance transfer offers. Currently, credit card issuers are offering 0 percent interest rates for extended periods of time in order to lure customers from their competitors. The Citi Platinum Select card offers 0 percent for 21 months; the Discover More card offers 0 percent for 18 months; and the Slate from Chase card offers 0 percent for 12 months with no balance transfer fee. If retailers win this antitrust suit, look for credit card issuers to scale back these balance transfer offers.

  • On the positive side, a possible decrease in prices at store level. Retailers claimed the passage of the Durbin amendment could lead to a decrease in prices since they would no longer have to pay the high swipe fees on debit card transactions. It is difficult to see if this actually took place. However, retailers may face more pressure from consumer groups to cut prices if the interchange fee is also slashed on credit card purchases.

Bill Hardekopf is CEO of LowCards.com, a site that simplifies the confusion of shopping for credit cards. It is a free, independent website that helps consumers easily compare credit cards in a variety of categories such as lowest rates, rewards, rebates, balance transfers and lowest introductory rates. It also gives an unbiased ranking and review for each card.

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