When it comes to taking a bite out of consumers and small merchants, the big banks are a lot like "The Walking Dead." They just keep coming.
Every time you use a credit card, your bank swipes a fee of as much as $4 right off the top of a $100 pair of shoes or a nice dinner for two.
It costs the bank just a few pennies to process this transaction. But because the banks inflate these swipe fees, they cost you more for everything you buy, even if you don't use a card.
They aren't called "swipe" fees for nothing. It's the biggest heist going – and you don't even see it.
How do the banks manage to pull this off in our modern free market system? Unlike most of the rest of our economy, there's no free market in credit card swipe fees. Instead, just two companies, Visa and MasterCard, fix the prices for their member banks.
The annual tab for both debit and credit swipe fees has swollen to $70 billion. That's big money – hundreds of dollars each year for every family in the country. That means everybody has less spending power and economic growth suffers.
This is a throwback to the days when a few powerful companies in each industry controlled everything from railroads to steel. That persisted until the trustbusters ended this kind of banditry. But there's hope. Congress decided to take a first step by cleaning up the debit-card market and introducing competition there. Debit swipe fee reform placed a cap on the transaction fees that large banks could charge merchants. Banks could no longer gouge them quite as much, but instead could compete on price if they didn't use the fees price-fixed by Visa and MasterCard.
That reform saved consumers billions, according to a study by a prominent economist. It also helped small Main Street merchants and boosted local economies.
But the banks didn't like being forced to compete, even though their own figures show they still mark up their debit-card swipe fees 500 percent even under reform. They tried to get Congress to repeal reform this spring, but without success. Members know competition is better than price-fixing for every one every time. Now it's time for Congress to take the next logical step and free the credit-card business from price-fixing.
The banks and their shills will throw more bogus statistics and studies around to confuse the issue, but there's one ineluctable fact they simply can't deny: The market is not free or competitive. And until it is, banks will enjoy an unfair advantage as they pick consumers' and merchants' pockets.
For small retailers and service businesses like grocers, it means these fees have metastasized into their second-largest operating costs, behind only labor, and ahead of rent and utilities.
That's why we need to start thinking now about how to reform credit cards. How much longer will we let banks dodge competition? This unfair, antiquated, rigged market must go.
Governments around the world have been taking on the price-fixed swipe fees. Canada, Great Britain, the European Union, Australia, and more have seen that action was needed and reformed their markets.
The U.S. pays the highest fees in the industrialized world – in fact, we pay more in swipe fees than all of the rest of the world combined. We need to catch up: We must demand a free market in card fees where banks and credit card companies play by free market rules.
Reform would mean lower prices for consumers and prosperity for small businesses. Who but a bank or credit card executive could be against that?
Greg Ferrara is senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the National Grocers Association.
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