Most of this year's chatter surrounding card interchange has centered on the prospects for the Credit Card Competition Act's passage. While this pending legislation remains on the watch list, the plot has taken a sudden twist. The Federal Reserve, at an October 25 meeting, pulled debit interchange squarely back onto center stage.
It has been almost a year and a half since the Fed had requested public comment on a “non-substantive” proposed amendment to Regulation II that would 1.) specify that the prohibition on network exclusivity applies to card-not-present debit card transactions, 2.) clarify the responsibility of the issuer to enable at least two unaffiliated networks to comply with the prohibition on network exclusivity, and 3.) standardize and explain the use of certain terminology. The proposal was anything but non-substantive and would have fundamentally altered issuers’ compliance obligations under Durbin. The Fed received more than 2,750 comments, and it has taken nearly a year since the comment period was completed to receive a final ruling. The ruling has finally arrived.
Ever since the Durbin Amendment upended the debit card industry in 2010, insiders have speculated that Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) would eventually pursue similar changes to the credit card industry.
Sen. Durbin made it known during a May 2022 Senate Judiciary Committee meeting that credit card reform was in his crosshairs. As inflation rose, he found a bipartisan partner in Sen. Roger Marshal (R-Kan.) and introduced bill S.4674, the Credit Card Competition Action of 2022.
This bill reflects many principles Reg II applied to routing, intending to increase competition and reduce merchant costs. If this bill becomes law, it will have significant consequences for issuers and consumers, potentially completely upending credit access as we know it today. It could also lead some issuers to dial back rewards and benefits.
Two recent developments are sending a message to credit card issuers that the regulatory and political winds are not blowing in their favor.
Rohit Chopra, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), on June 22 issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to assess if late fees charged by credit card issuers are “reasonable and proportional,” as required by the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure (CARD) Act.
Chopra’s notice came weeks after longtime card industry adversary Sen. Richard Durbin chaired a Judiciary Committee meeting exploring “excessive interchange fees.” While Durbin advocated for reforms, some of his suggestions would set the industry back by decades, likely ending the ability of small banks and credit unions to offer credit cards and directly harming consumers.
Though the outcome is uncertain, the trajectory is clear. Now is the time for a refresher course on the current rules of the road and for issuers to prepare for any potential changes arising during this period of heightened scrutiny.
As discussed in a previous blog, the Federal Reserve began seeking comments on proposed changes to Reg II of the Durbin Amendment in May. At that time, the Fed said that it felt the changes would be non-substantial and would not include more compliance obligations. Currently, the Fed bars issuers from restricting the number of unaffiliated networks for debit card transactions to fewer than two, including one signature network and one PIN network. The new proposal would make issuers responsible for ensuring that all transactions with US merchants can be routed across two unaffiliated networks.
While the Fed characterized this change as a simple clarification, it is anything but, as evidenced by the over 2,600 comments received. It is clear this issue is complex, substantial, and would increase compliance obligations.
We have sorted through the comments posted on the Fed's website and various government sites to summarize the key points for both sides of this argument.
Rumor is that a further tightening of the Durbin Amendment is on the near-term horizon for card issuers. The most concrete evidence is the Fed’s May request-for-comment on regulations for debit routing of online transactions.
The Fed wants to clarify the regulatory requirement that at least two unaffiliated payment card networks must be enabled for all debit card transactions, including card-not-present (CNP), and card-issuing banks and credit unions will be held responsible. Some terminology will also see standardization.
While the Fed positioned its query as a “non-substantive clarification,” many of the 453 comments submitted so far express a belief that the proposal, if enacted, would have a significant impact on issuers. Meanwhile, bankers are entering a period of uncertainty as they closely monitor the situation for implications to P&L.
The winds have shifted since 2020 made game-changing waves in debit card usage on multiple fronts, including:
- In-person versus online spending
- Categories of merchants patronized
- Contactless/mobile app adoption
Each of these factors carries implications for banks, credit unions, and other card issuers and their existing revenue models. Below are a few opportunities and recalibrations to consider for your next PIN network vendor negotiation.