More than a century ago, Teddy Roosevelt busted the trusts that dominated steel and railroads and meatpacking and other industries.
They could rip off other businesses and consumers because they utterly dominated their industries, squashing competition and rigging prices.
In most industries, those days are gone. But one monopoly remains in an obscure corner of the banking business, a rigged game that costs you more every time you buy gas or groceries or clothes.
Welcome to the business of processing debit- and credit-card payments.
Until Congress reformed debit cards, Visa and MasterCard so dominated this business that they price-fixed swollen fees for their member banks. Every time you swiped a debit card, the bank that issued it took a giant bite out of the merchant, which ultimately cost you more at the cash register.
Congress introduced modest competition to this business seven years ago, but left the credit-card business — with its even higher fees — untouched. These "swipe fees" are a terribly serious problem for merchants like me, which means they're also a big problem for you.
First, merchants subsist on such meager profit margins — many around 1 or 2 percent — that they have to raise prices at least in part to cover these bloated fees. The prices go up for everyone. Even if you don't use a card, you pay more. Higher prices, of course, hurt the poorest people most, especially when swipe fees cost the average family more than $500 every year.
Second, unfair, burdensome swipe fees are a heavy yoke that keep us merchants from expanding and hiring. For some of us, especially small businesses, they even threaten our very existence. How bad is it? Some industries, like convenience stores, often pay more in fees than they earn in profits. And for many merchants, swipe fees are now their second-largest operating cost, after only labor.
Third, while banks earn record profits, retailers are struggling with gigantic tectonic shifts in their businesses, mostly due to the Internet but also to rapidly changing fashions and new patterns of shopping.
Debit reform saved consumers and small retailers like me $40 billion, according to a respected economist, over the five full years it's been in effect.
A whopping $3.5 billion of that was saved In Texas alone, where I run a small chain of seven franchised second-hand clothing stores for teens and women.
Our lackluster economy needs a healthy retail industry, which is a big chunk of the nation's economic activity. It needs the jobs we generate and the taxes we pay and the spending our customers do.
Why would Americans want to hobble our industry merely to pad the bottom lines of the big banks? It makes no sense. Yet that is exactly what the Financial Choice Act in Congress would have done until recently.
The bill would have, in effect, taken us back to the old days of the robber barons and the trusts in the payments business. Instead of sugar or oil, it would be debit swipe fees.
Even under reform, banks can mark up their debit fees an elephantine 500 percent. If the banks had succeeded in repealing reform, that would have become even more bloated. They would also have been able to go back to squashing competing processing networks like Star, Pulse, NYCE, Shazam and others.
Small businesses and consumers would have suffered. Jobs would have disappeared. The economy would have groaned — all so the banks could gouge consumers and merchants.
Thanks to Congress for realizing that and removing repeal of debit reform from the Choice Act.
Now we need our representatives to realize that they haven't finished yet: Credit cards remain uncompetitive, and their swipe fees are even higher than debit cards.
There's a lot more to do to stimulate the economy, create jobs, lower prices and, above all, finally make the card market look like the rest of our free-market economy. It's been an exception for far too long.
Mr. Bell owns Clothes Mentor in Plano, Texas.
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