Durbin Swipe Fee Watch V: Gas Retailers

It is time for another edition of the Durbin Swipe Fee Watch.

Recall that the Durbin Amendment was a last minute measure added to the Dodd-Frank Act. The provision, which directed regulators to cap bank interchange fees-the fees banks charge retailers in order for the retailers to use the banks debit card-was naturally lobbied for hard by retailers. Regulators later set the limit at 21 cents per transaction, less than half of the average 44 cents per transaction prior to the rule.

At the time, Senator Durbin hoped that the lowered fees would reduce prices and amount to savings for consumers. That hasn’t been how the movie has played out though.

The most recent evidence comes from new research showing that while the automobile gas retail industry has achieved $1 billion in annual savings from the lowered swipe fees, these are not savings being passed on to consumers. Of the 134 billion gallons of gasoline sold in 2011 approximately 48 billion gallons were purchased using debit cards, and with the average savings for gas retailers of about 3 cents/gallon on debit card purchases courtesy of the Durbin Amendment, you get the $1 billion figure. The reduced swipe fees mean less cost for the retailers, but what about the consumers?

With debit as the overwhelmingly most popular payment choice at the pump (comprising of 36 percent of all transactions), the reduced swipe fees have essentially given the gas retailers a subsidy windfall rather than any savings for consumers.

It is well documented that gas price averages were 26 percent higher in 2011 compared to 2010. Much of this could be blamed on the Arab Spring or Federal Reserve’s QE programs driving up commodities prices. The data shows that consumers should be seeing a 4-5 cent discount for an average 16 gallon pump when they pay with debit. But with prices ever climbing the ill conceived Durbin Amendment has just put that money into the pockets of the gas stations.

While it is not necessarily a bad thing that small businesses (gas retailers) have reduced costs, it is a problem that this has come at the expense of other businesses (banks), all because Washington decided to pick favorites. Disguising their rule as somehow for the betterment of consumers has simply become a joke.

We predicted this back in 2010. Since Durbin Amendment’s directed regulation has started its film reel many banks have ended debit card reward programs and flirted with monthly debit card fees. Retailers such as Redbox have even had to increase prices as a direct result of the Durbin Amendment. All of this has caused measurable harm to consumers, with little evidence of an aggregate benefit for them, and all this while big box retailers stand to make millions and more. The notion that businesses would voluntarily pass along these savings to consumers and that the banks would not find other ways to make up for lost revenues is baffling, and very short-sighted by the U.S. Congress.

Now in its fifth edition, the Durbin Amendment Swipe Fee Watch has reached the level of both the Rocky and Planet of the Apes movie franchises in that, like both Rocky V and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, you are now wishing the Durbin Amendment never happened. We all fear the release of the next edition.