Monday, May 30, 2011

Wolves, Vultures, Consumers - and New Debit Card Regulations

Debit card changes swipe at consumers, by Chuck Jaffe @ MarketWatch.

In an otherwise mundane piece concerning the mechanics of debit card fees and the effect that new Federal regulations will have on them, Jaffe snuck this in:

Currently, legislation in both the House and Senate would at least delay the reform, and the rhetoric is flying on both sides. Since releasing the proposal, the Fed has received more than 11,000 comment letters. Financial institutions call the planned cut in swipe fees a “$12 billion gift to retailers,” while the retailers respond by suggesting that postponing the change would be akin to “another bailout” of the banking industry.

This is a battle between wolves and vultures for the last meat left on the carcass and, ladies and gentlemen, we’re the meat.

I get my back up when I see other Americans being treated this way. Keep in mind that we're not talking about fraud here. We're talking about fees for services "consumers" find valuable.

I've left the following brief comments:

Mr. Jaffe laments the “battle between wolves [retailers] and vultures [banks] for the last meat left on the carcass and, ladies and gentlemen, we’re the meat” – i.e., between the people that provide the outlets for products and services we desire and those who provide popular and convenient means of purchasing them. That privileged, superior elite – we “consumers” – are not vultures or wolves, of course. “We’re” entitled to cheaper fees than the lowly producers are willing to charge – imposed by regulatory fiat by our alleged protectors.

It’s a shame that the entitlement mentality has penetrated so deep that we can’t see the real wolves and vultures – those newly empowered “public servants” whose idea of “reasonable” ... supersedes the voluntary decisions of the private market participants: and newly empowered by virtue of the financial overhaul bill allegedly necessitated by a financial crises. “We” just want our cheaper fees, personal freedom of choice be damned.

Note that Jaffe acknowledges that the new regulations - which will, if enacted, result in "debit-card fees [being] sliced by up to 70%" - will encourage banks to replace the lost revenue elsewhere:

Consumers will pay for those benefits in the form of higher banking fees — bigger charges on use of ATMs outside your bank network, but also additional charges for online banking or paper statements and other conveniences. Consumers might see less-favorable interest rates (particularly on the accounts where they get reduced swipe-fee revenue, but also on loans), and fewer rewards programs.

Free checking accounts, already on the endangered species list, could become virtually extinct.

But, Jaffe doesn't question the practical wisdom of the Fed meddling in the debit fee arena - let alone the moral or legal right to interfere in what is a private, voluntary trade among merchants, banks, and consumers. He simply accepts as the given the regulations coming forth from government officials - like an unchallengeable law of nature - and simply convicts retailers and banks for the sin of reacting.

In our massively regulated financial industry, it's hard to tell what fees we are paying in response to what prior regulations. Jaffe quotes an expert as saying "You could make swipe fees a lot more transparent on the front end — and that would be seen as good — but if the banks and the retailers find other ways to hit you for a few hundred bucks that is less transparent, it would be hard to say you came out ahead.” The biggest cloud of all, however, is the government regulatory Leviathan - which was made even bigger and more complex by Obama's reform bill - another one of those legislative monstrosities that nobody even reads, let alone understands.

Talk about lack of transparency! It's a wonder our banking system even works at all.

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