Peter Guidi's Blog

Competitive opportunity in a post Durbin world: richer debit rewards as the unintended consequence of the $10 billion exclusion.

In alternative payment, Bank Tax, credit card, debit card, interchange, loyalty, payment, Payment card, Petroleum retailing, swipe fees on October 27, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Dozens of articles have been written about the impact of the Durbin Amendment on the payment card industry, with nary a positive comment in the mix. The focus has been on the punitive impact that the legislation will have on both financial institutions and consumers. The consensus has been that banks will lose significant revenue and that consumers will see more bank fees as costs are shifted to make up for lost interchange revenue. This article takes a different approach and looks at the new market opportunity hidden in the bill, the opportunity for smaller financial institutions to launch aggressive debit reward programs fueled by higher interchange fees.

Under Durbin’s “reasonable debit fee requirement,” there is an exemption for banks and credit unions with assets under $10 billion (this includes 99% of all banks and credit unions). This means that Visa and MasterCard can continue to set the same debit interchange rates that they do today for small banks and credit unions.  Those institutions would not lose any interchange revenue that they currently receive; in fact they could receive even higher rates. Many experts writing on Durbin have concluded that this exception will be meaningless because the networks will be unable to accommodate multiple fee structures and as a result, while exempt, interchange fess on those financial institutions will suffer along with their larger brethren.

The argument is that the required costs and effort, such as network IT changes to accommodate multiple interchange fees, make this outcome unlikely. The recognition that business pressure from small banks and credit unions on the networks, Congress or the Fed could leave the networks with little choice but to develop a two tiered fee structure may alter this conclusion. A few weeks back, TCF, an issuer whose business is above the $10 billion exemption, filed a lawsuit stating, “the thousands of banks exempted from the amendment will be free to continue to charge retailers the current debit-card interchange rate and recover all their cost plus a profit. This will result in an irrational competitive disadvantage for banks like TCF that are subject to the new regulations.” It appears from TCF statements that the idea of 7000 smaller financial institutions issuing a new class of richer debit reward cards seems not only plausible, but probable, and a real threat to their business. The focus on the challenges associated with creating a network pricing schema that allows for multiple interchange rates, rather than discussing the market dynamics, is missing the business opportunity.

The reason this will happen is that the payment card industry is a two-sided market. Durbin treats the payment industry like a utility, but this analysis is mistaken. Durbin and its proponents have argued that the payment card industry lacked competition. This falsity, propelled by an active merchant lobby, found resonance in Congress. In reality, the payment card business is a highly competitive marketplace. It just happens that the competition is between financial institutions fighting for a larger share of the consumer market. The result of this competition is higher fees to those wishing access to the market.  Durbin seeks to upset this market, ignoring the two-sided market economics driving consumer demand.

Consumers will move their purchasing to whatever product provides the most incentives. Merchants will accept the business from any large group of consumers, and Durbin does not allow merchants to discriminate by issuer on a network. What this means is that smaller financial institutions will introduce richer debit rewards programs attracting larger shares of consumers who will then shop at retail locations using those cards. Retailers will not turn customers away because payment method would be become a factor in the consumers choice of retailers, something no marketing department will allow.  This is the result of network effects, and they are the unavoidable economic reality driving the industry. The resulting competitive dynamic is in play: issuers will want to try to drive up fees on the merchant side of the market, delivering greater rewards on the consumer side. Consumers will look for low-fee banking services and richer rewards that are supported by these programs. As a result, millions of consumers will gravitate from the 90 or so issuers affected by Durbin to the 7000 who are excluded. This looks like opportunity.

The real question is how long it will take the networks to code the system to handle multiple prices for issuers. I’d be surprised if the work was not already well underway and available not long after the Fed sets its rates. Durbin will have closed the door on the top 90 issuers, essentially putting them at a competitive disadvantage. But in closing that door, the way has been cleared the remaining 7000 financial institutions to develop their debit rewards business. In many ways Durbin did for the network what they could not do themselves; i.e Durbin eliminated the power of the major issuers and opened the market to the smaller financial institutions.

The TCF lawsuit has been both ballyhooed and scoffed at.  No matter the outcome in court, the case will have an impact on the industry. If Durbin passes all of its legal challenges, the irony may be that the consumer will benefit as a result of richer rewards programs from smaller issuers, and merchants will see card acceptance costs rise taking no comfort knowing that they won a battle but lost the war.

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  1. One argument that I have heard is that the loss of interchange fees will be reductions in rewards programs as well as loss of free checking.

    If you look at the technological ability of the smaller FI wouldn’t it be more natural to continue to have free checking while the 90 over $10 billion FI lose this service. This seems like a simple implementation of this rather than a rich rewards program for debit.

    How many under $10 billion FI’s have a robust debit rewards program in today’s economic model? It seems like this is mostly with the Chases of the world.

    • Right now no one knows what will happen and so it’s just a guess. Your thought is valid, but there are so many unknowns it is impossible to say for sure. What I think is true is that the market will drive the product. Free Checking may in fact be the most powerful reward in a new environment, and if it urns out that way your prediction will be correct. Right now I’m betting the TCH lawsuit has legs. Time will tell, thank you for your input.

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