Getting Real About Durbin

I’ve been amazed by what I’ve been reading of late from the “analyst” firms commenting on the Durbin Amendment. A lot of what I’ve seen makes me wonder whether these folks should turn in their analyst licenses and simply register as paid lobbyists for their big bank clientele. (The Durbin amendment, for those not in our industry, is an amendment to the financial regulation bill that has passed the Senate and is awaiting its fate in the reconciliation committees. The amendment would give the Fed, and possibly the consumer regulatory agency, the power to regulate debit card interchange. Most likely, this would reduce a key source of retail bank revenue.)

Now, don’t mistake me as a supporter of the Durbin approach. I’d like to see the courts deal with the legality of the present interchange arrangement and hopefully guide us toward a more market-based approach to setting prices, but for a moment, let’s deal with the world as it is, rather than as we wish it to be.

The Amendment could be modified, watered down, and limited, but the strong probability is that it will pass in some form that will result in lower rates of interchange on most debit card transactions. There, I said it.  So now let’s talk realistically about what could ensue.

I think the possible competitive actions and reactions by banks and card networks make for a fascinating and complicated chessboard, but I seem to be in the minority. Most of the commentators are unusually happy to make to confident predictions about the outcomes. For example, writing on last Friday, David Evans went so far as to say, “The consequences of the Durbin amendment are pretty easy to forecast, sadly enough.” Yet most of the predictions on his list make little sense to me as a former retail banker and payments consultant. Below are my reactions to Evans’ major predictions (quoted in bold).

“There is no evidence that I know of that it is a massive generator of profits for anyone so price caps aren’t going to come out of profits.” Then what is everyone so upset about? Why is my in box stuffed with promotions and rewards offers tied to use of my debit card? Why is a major bank running national ads that depict two brothers racing to swipe debit cards for each other’s purchases? I was in charge of an “ATM card program” when signature debit was introduced. At the time, PIN debit was at best a break-even proposition, which we largely ignored; signature debit interchange was dropped on us like manna from heaven and powerfully transformed DDA economics as it grew over the years. Free checking was nearly unheard of before debit interchange.

“At least in the near term the retailers will pocket a good portion of that money in the form of extra profits. Consumers shouldn’t expect to see price reductions.” If you are merchant reading this, you must giddy to learn that you have so much pricing power and that the laws of economics no longer apply to you. Debit interchange is an input cost to merchants and if that cost goes down it means the industry supply curve shifts down. When the price of a barrel of oil falls on a futures market, a day or so later, the price of gasoline responds. Why don’t the extractors, refiners and dealers just pocket the money? Because in a competitive market, they can’t.

Now, you shouldn’t look for a penny-for-penny change in prices. Debit isn’t 100% of the payment volume, and it is just one small component of the cost of most goods sold at retail. But in any market where price is set at the intersection of supply and demand, there will be at least subtle downward pressure on prices.

Frankly, we are already seeing a less subtle impact on pricing that is encouraged by the Durbin provisions that allow merchants to promote some forms of payment over others. If you’ve been to a gas station lately, you know that cash purchases are already priced about 3% lower than card purchases. Shell recently introduced a private label decoupled card that clears via ACH debit and offers discounts to users of that card. Ikea has already also been offering vouchers for discounts on future purchases to customers who pay with debit. And last week came the news that Target will now offer instant 5% discounts to users of its proprietary and co-branded cards. I’ve been waiting a couple of years to see retailers begin tying their discount and loyalty cards to specific, less-costly forms of payment and I sense now that the genie is slowly oozing out of the bottle. Keep a watch on other high frequency retailers (supermarkets, drug chains, discounters, gas stations) for evidence of similar programs. Interchange is a meaningful expense and retailers will invest money to avoid or reduce it.

“Banks are going to have to figure out how to recover the costs of offering debit cards and it is inevitable consumers will face higher banking fees in one form or another.” Can’t argue this one, but so what? Where is it written that merchants must underwrite “free checking”? If consumers value their checking accounts and debit cards, they’ll pay for them; if they don’t, they’ll pay some other way. When signature debit first came out, I was criticized for offering it for free to the bank’s customers while banks elsewhere in the country were readily commanding annual fees of $12-18 for the convenience these cards were bringing to customers. I decided to remove the barriers to activation and focus on usage, reasoning that we would make more money over time that way. After a while, most every other bank in the country reached the same conclusion. Times change, and I suppose if interchange is reduced sharply enough, we could see annual fees come back to debit cards (anyone remember when other banks’ ATM didn’t charge you a convenience fee?). My bet is that retail banks will find some other element of the DDA to reprice.

“It is also likely that banks will be less enthusiastic about debit cards and regain for love (sic) for the plain old paper check.” Likely? Having spent the last 15 years selling consumers on the convenience of debit cards and online bill payment, will the retail banking industry simply turn 180 degrees en masse and encourage their customers to start writing checks again? Will the consumer accept that? Will merchants happily accept an increase in checks? Can the economics of the zero-interchange, fraud-prone check really be better for the banks than the regulated debit card? That approach could provide interesting openings for card players like American Express and Discover who do not currently participate in the volume and growth of the debit market.

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So, there will be effects from the regulation as historical cross-subsidies are disrupted. Transaction accounts may become more expensive for some consumers, and debit reward programs will probably be diluted. At the same time, consumers could benefit as retailers provide incentives for certain forms of payment.

But we need to be careful about overdramatizing the possible outcomes in the heat of the current political debate. Consumers are not going to suddenly abandon the convenience of their debit cards in order to write more checks. Debit card interchange was significantly reduced by the settlement of the Wal-Mart lawsuit and debit cards not only survived but became much more popular in the years after. In fact, debit cards exist and are quite popular in markets with minimal or no interchange – just ask a friend in Canada. In fact, maybe a change in the regulatory regime could drive the industry away from the highly contentious, zero-sum game that interchange has become in recent years and towards some innovative – and mutually profitable – partnerships between banks and retailers.

What do you think?
Let us know in the comments…