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Why Big Banks Want Americans to Pay More for Everything
Once again, the nation’s big banks are working hard to have their own way with some of the most consequential issues before Congress. Tucked into the small print of Paul Ryan’s budget plan for 2012 and beyond are provisions to roll back the key regulatory steps taken to make another financial meltdown less likely, especially higher capital requirements tied to the riskiness of a bank’s investments. That’s not their only fight these days: They also are trying to roll back a critical debit-card reform enacted last year and just now about to go into effect. If they succeed — and the Washington airwaves are saturated with ominous ads calling for the rollback — it could cost many Americans nearly as much as what they have at stake in the ongoing squabbling over the 2011 budget.
The bipartisan debt and credit card reforms passed last year put the first real limits on how much the card networks and the large banks that issue nearly all cards can charge merchants when a consumer pays with a debit card. These charges are called “swipe fees,” and while they apply to all credit card as well as debit card transactions, the 2010 swipe-fee reforms apply only to debit card transactions. But if they save consumers as much as economists estimate, these reforms could well be extended to all credit card transactions too. And that could save the average American household some $230 per-year.
This is worth dwelling on, because it involves an ostensibly free market which, behind the curtain, a few huge companies actually manage to a significant degree — and now, behind the scenes, they’re also trying to manage the legislative process.
The facts, in a nutshell, are as follows. Merchants pay the three credit and debit card networks that account for some 80 percent of all charges a fee for every transaction using one of their cards that ranges from 1.5 percent to about 3.2 percent of the value of the transaction. A fee at some level makes perfect sense, since people buy more when they can charge or debit it, which benefits the merchants. But there’s no real economic basis for the actual levels of the fees. Less than 20 percent of the fees go to cover the actual costs of transaction for the banks and the credit card networks. Most of the rest goes to the four big banks that account for nearly 70 percent of all card transactions, with some going into higher profits and some for the advertising and rewards programs used to attract more customers.
We studied these fees last year. We found that in 2008, merchants paid swipe fees totaling some $48 billion. Those costs were tacked on to the price of everything they sold – clothing, computers, gasoline, restaurant meals, airline tickets, medications and so on. Moreover, the credit card networks forbid merchants from charging anyone using their cards a higher price to cover the fee, than those who pay cash. So, everyone pays for the swipe fees in higher prices every time they buy anything, whether or not they even use a credit or debit card.
We found that 56 percent of the swipe fees paid by merchants get passed along in higher prices, which in 2008 came to about $26 billion or $230 per-household. This year, it will be more, because we’re all charging more. And if the swipe fees were limited to the actual costs of processing debit and credit card transactions, plus normal profits, the lower prices for everything would expand real demand enough to create nearly 250,000 more American jobs.
In truth, the credit and debit card system operates more like a cartel than a genuine market. The fees are set by three companies that together account for 95 percent of consumer charges and two-thirds of business charges — Visa, MasterCard and American Express. Their actual customers are the banks that issue the cards, because the more cards are issued, the more swipe fees are generated. Moreover, four banks account for 70 percent of all cards and charges: JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Citigroup, and American Express (all of which, by the way, also collected taxpayer bailouts).
Since each of the networks and each of the banks account for a good slice of any merchant’s business, merchants have little option but to deal with them — again, much like a cartel. So, merchants can’t put normal market pressures on the networks and the banks to lower the fees by exiting the system. And since the networks forbid merchants from charging different prices based on whether a customer uses a card or cash, consumers have no incentive to pressure the networks and banks to lower their fees by using cash instead.
This not only produces higher prices, but higher prices that are applied in particularly unfair ways. More than half of all lower and moderate-income Americans don’t carry credit or debit cards at all. Yet they pay the higher prices along with everyone else. And most middle-class Americans with credit or debit cards pay higher prices to finance rewards programs largely restricted to more affluent card users.
So, last year, Congress gave the Federal Reserve authority to set rules for the swipe fees on debit card transactions. When Australia did much the same to cover both credit and debit cards, swipe fees there fell to 0.50 percent — and the system continued to work fine. The new rules are nearly ready to be issued here, and that’s what the banks and credit card networks are working so hard to stop. It will be another political test of whether big finance really can get anything it wants from Washington, regardless of the cost to everybody else.