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Passed as part of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, the Durbin Amendment was touted as a measure to benefit America’s retail consumers. The goal of the Durbin Amendment was to reduce the costs of interchange fees that retail merchants pay for debit card transactions with the hope that those costs savings would be passed onto consumers. Roughly six years later however studies show consumer costs have not been reduced and also that retail merchants are less concerned with reduced fees and more with receiving benefits and flexibility in interchange transactions.

Most American consumers are likely not aware of the process that goes into debit card transactions with their local retail stores. In fact, most consumers likely are not aware of the Durbin Amendment and the interchange fees it sought to cap. Yet the process and costs of using debit cards is something that effects millions of Americans on a daily basis as well as the merchants with whom they are transacting.

To put it simply, interchange fees are the fees paid by retail merchants to financial institutions for the privilege of accepting debit card payments in their stores. As mentioned, Durbin set a cap on the interchange fees financial institutions were allowed to charge merchants for the privilege of processing debit transactions.

In passing Durbin, proponents claimed that not only would consumers see reduced prices in stores but that merchants’ themselves would prefer and benefit from reduced interchange fees. The problem with such claims by Durbin proponents though is neither has proven to be true since enactment.

According to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond in conjunction with Javelin Strategy & Research, since enactment of the Durbin Amendment 75 percent of the merchants surveyed in the study reported no price reduction as a result of the regulation. In fact, of the merchants surveyed 23 percent had actually increased prices on consumers since Durbin passed.

As to the second claim, that merchants’ primary concern was on reducing interchange fees, new findings show the majority of small merchants are actually more concerned with preserving the benefits they receive from increased flexibility and choice in the partnerships they hold with financial institutions. This stems from the fact that the agreements merchants reach with financial institutions for debit card processing often provide the merchants with benefits that outweigh any reduction in fees they pay.

A new study released in April of this year by Javelin Strategy & Research found that for America’s small merchants, “value is a more significant factor than price when it comes to satisfaction with debit interchange fees and partnerships” with financial institutions.

That is to say merchants want more flexibility and options stemming from the benefits they receive from partnerships with financial institutions for processing, and when fees are capped under Durbin the benefits offered to merchants from such partnership agreements are diminished.

The April study surveyed 500 small merchants, those with annual sales between $250,000 and $10 million, and concluded that “small merchants want choice and flexibility more than low prices” on interchange fees paid. In fact, more than four in five merchants surveyed were satisfied with the transparency and value they get from their debit card payment processors and of the merchants who were not satisfied just one-quarter believe interchange fees hurt their profitability.

Even more revealing is that the study found over sixty percent of small merchants were unfamiliar with the details surrounding federal efforts to cap debit interchange fees under Durbin. Clearly the narrative from Durbin supporters that capping interchange fees would be a benefit and preference for merchants is mischaracterized and for the most part wholly misleading. 

Thus over six years since enactment of the Durbin Amendment, the two driving justifications for enactment of price caps on interchange fees are proving false.

Small merchants not only prefer choice and flexibility in their partnerships with financial institutions, which are increased when prices are not capped, but prefer such benefits over reduced prices. Furthermore, the price savings consumers were supposedly guaranteed under Durbin have not come to fruition, and even worse a number of merchants have increased prices despite the Durbin price caps.  

Lawmakers in the 115th Congress should keep in mind these two failed outcomes when considering Durbin Amendment repeal, and know that the benefits to consumers and merchants promised under Durbin have been an overwhelming failure. 


Photo credit: Paul G