Banks' Credit Card Fees Threatened as Durbin Supports Retailers

  • U.S. Senator asks whether card technology hinders competition
  • Card networks battle stores over security, $50 billion of fees

As one of the most antagonistic lobbying battles in Washington escalates -- where financial institutions like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Visa Inc. are sparring with companies such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. over credit card swipe fees -- a powerful ally is again sticking up for the retailers.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin wants to know whether a group owned by the world’s biggest payment networks is using credit card technology and security standards to hinder competition, according to a copy of a letter obtained by Bloomberg News. The questioning rekindles scrutiny of Visa, American Express Co. and MasterCard Inc. by the Illinois Democrat, who inserted a controversial amendment in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act that significantly cut the fees the companies charge on debit card purchases.

“I write to seek information about EMVCo, its governance, its operations, and the impact its specifications may have on competition and choice between electronic payment networks," Durbin wrote in the letter dated March 17, referring to the group owned by credit card networks that sets standards for the industry globally. “It is important for lawmakers to have a clear picture of how EMVCo operates and how its work affects American businesses and consumers."

Retailers have long fumed about the cost of accepting credit cards -- about 2 percent of each transaction. Those swipe fees, also known as interchange, are set by Visa and MasterCard and most of the money ultimately goes to banks, which say they use it to fund security and technology upgrades and cardholders’ beloved rewards programs.

$50 Billion

Ever since Congress passed Durbin’s amendment, retailers have been lobbying lawmakers to also cut fees for credit cards. That’s left some of the world’s biggest banks scrambling to stay ahead in a fight where about $50 billion of fees generated each year are at stake.

Durbin publicly raised his concerns about competition last week at a hearing in Washington that featured testimony from Justice Department officials who handle antitrust matters.

The latest front in the battle over swipe fees is masked in a debate over security and whether consumers should sign their name or enter a PIN when they use new credit cards with chips designed to thwart fraud. Retailers say PINs are safer because they add an extra layer of security if a card is lost or stolen.

But banks say signatures are sufficient in reducing theft and are concerned that retailers really want to use the extra security feature to argue credit cards are essentially like debit cards, which use PINs and carry a much lower swipe fee.

State Battle

As the fight heats up, both sides are mobilizing their armies of lobbyists, trade associations and public relations specialists. Earlier this week, retail groups began urging members of Congress to sign a letter asking the Federal Trade Commission whether it has examined the issue of chip cards, according to a copy obtained by Bloomberg.

“Should Congress consider requiring enhancements to chip technology, such as PINs or some equivalent measure?" Representatives Joe Barton, a Republican from Texas, and Representative Peter Welch, a Democrat from Vermont, said in the letter dated March 14. “Where do you see chip and PIN fitting in to the larger question of consumer protection in financial transactions?”

The fight over swipe fees isn’t limited to Washington. Banks and retailers are also battling at the state level and in the courts. In November, nine attorneys general wrote to the the chief executive officers of the biggest U.S. banks asking for them to consider distributing chip cards that included PINs.

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