Use a debit card? Now it’s really going to cost you. Bank of America announced last week that it will begin charging customers $5 per month for use of their debit cards. But if you’re looking for someone to blame, set your sights on Washington.
Bank of America is imposing the new fee in anticipation of a $2 billion annual loss brought about by the “Durbin Amendment” — a provision of last year’s Dodd-Frank Wall Street financial reform bill.
Signed into law in July 2010, the measure was intended to protect America from another financial meltdown, but in reality it placed a boatload of new burdens on financial institutions and their customers. The results? Increased risks to the financial system, increased regulations, and in this case, increased costs to anyone who uses a debit card.
Under the Durbin Amendment–named for its backer Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL)–the federal government now limits the amount of money banks can charge merchants when you swipe your debit card, costing them an estimated $6.6 billion per year in revenue. Rather than recoup their costs from merchants, banks are looking to consumers to pay the bill.
Enter Bank of America’s new fee. But they’re not alone. Wells Fargo expects to lose $1 billion, prompting it to adopt a $3 fee for debit cards in some areas. JPMorgan Chase is also rolling out new fees, as is Citibank. Smaller banks are getting into the game, too, as the Associated Press reports. Atlanta-based SunTrust recently instituted a $5 debit card fee, while Regions Financial in Birmingham, Alabama, will begin charging a $4 fee next month. In Texas, International Bancshares has announced last week the closure of 55 branches in grocery stores and the loss of 500 jobs.
Heritage’s Diane Katz explains that free debit cards aren’t the only things to disappear under the new law. Katz writes that a study fromBankrate.com found that the proportion of free checking accounts (of the non-interest variety) has fallen this year to 45 percent from 65 percent in 2010 and 76 percent two years ago. According to the 2011 Checking Account Survey, the number of free accounts “is likely to drop further as banks and their customers adjust to recent regulatory changes in banking.” And, Katz says, those who can least afford it will pay the price:
The new fees will hit lower-income families the hardest. That’s because banks often exempt premium accounts from user fees to nurture more profitable customers. Faced with higher fees, some cash-strapped consumers will migrate to credit cards—if they can qualify. More stringent regulations have tightened the availability of credit while also increasing interest rates and fees.
In typical populist fashion, Senator Durbin sold his amendment as consumer-friendly. But any regulation that increases consumer costs and raises consumer debt is inherently anti-consumer and economically destructive.
Bank of America is already seeing a backlash from its decision. Its stock dropped by more than 3.5 percent on Friday, and its website was hit with outages and glitches over the weekend (drawing speculation of attacks by disgruntled hackers). But that anger should be directed at Washington, which passed the regulations leading to the Durbin tax. And there’s one thing Congress can and should do to solve the problem: repeal it.