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01 November 2011

Senator Durbin questions Wells Fargo about debit fees

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) asked Wells Fargo why it has increased debit fees to customers when the bank recently announced a $4 billion profit, according to the Huffington Post.

In a letter to Wells Fargo's chairman and chief executive officer, John G. Stumpf, Durbin wrote, "It is certainly surprising that your bank would pursue this fee strategy in light of the consumer reaction that has been prompted by Bank of America's recent imposition of a monthly debit fee on its customers. If you were hoping that your new fee would go unnoticed, it has not."

Wells Fargo announced Monday an increase of 21 percent from the previous quarter. The bank is testing a new $3 debit fee in Georgia, New Mexico, Nevada, Washington and Oregon, which according to the article, it says will recover some of the lost revenue resulting from the implementation of the Durbin Amendment on Oct. 1.

The Durbin Amendment, a component of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, applies an interchange fee cap of 21 cents per debit transaction, along with five basis points to be multiplied by the value of the transaction. Issuers can also receive an additional 1 cent per transaction toward the costs of fraud prevention.

"It is unfortunate, though not surprising, that your bank is now blaming swipe fee reform for your decision to impose this significant new fee on your loyal customers. ... Because Wells Fargo has not made publicly available any of its own cost or revenue data regarding debit transactions, I will inform you what the publicly-available data reveals," Durbin wrote. "Wells Fargo will make at least an estimated $1.22 billion in annual debit interchange revenue after swipe fee reform. This amount far exceeds any reasonable measure of the cost to Wells Fargo of conducting debit transactions. Instead of making up costs, your new consumer fee appears to be a plain attempt to increase your profits — even though your bank just reported third quarter profits that hit a record high."

Now that the implications of the Durbin Amendment are sinking in, banks are responding cautiously to the new economics of debit cards. With interchange revenue streams cut in half, most banks will feel the need to begin charging some kind of fee and dropping rewards on debit cards.

"Banks are all watching each other because there is a first-mover disadvantage in this case," said Ed Lawrence, director of the Debit Marketing Roundtable at Rockville, Md.-based Auriemma Consulting Group. "The first-movers to institute debit/checking fees in a given market will experience the most scrutiny and possible attrition, along with negative press; as others follow, customers will have fewer places to move to."

Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and Congressman Bill Owens (D-N.Y.) are the lead co-sponsors of legislation they plan to introduce to the House of Representatives repealing the Durbin Amendment. The Electronic Payments Coalition last week announced its support for the legislation.

"When consumers are starting to feel the effect of the repercussion of the Durbin Amendment we should do something," Chaffetz told reporters and others on a conference call last week. "These legislatively enacted price controls have compelled banks to charge consumers higher and in some cases new fees to make up for lost revenue."

According to the article, Durbin has also encouraged consumers to close their Bank of America debit cards and move to smaller banks that don't charge debit fees. Bank of America announced in late September that it will begin charging a monthly $5 fee for debit cards beginning in January.


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