Could the Credit Card Competition Act Impact Credit Unions?

Credit unions are among the few institutions where consumers can go to save on fees and interest rates for different banking services and loans. These not-for-profit cooperative financial institutions are owned by their members and return profits to them in the form of such savings. But a bipartisan bill first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2022 could impact the ability of credit unions to provide those benefits, according to some opponents of the measure.

The Credit Card Competition Act would require financial institutions with more than $100 billion in assets to provide merchants with more choice when it comes to which payment network can process credit card purchases made in their stores. The bill’s supporters say introducing such options will help drive down costs for merchants and, in turn, for consumers.

Currently, when a consumer makes a purchase with a credit card, the merchant pays what’s known as an interchange fee to accept that payment and have it processed securely by the card’s payment network (typically Visa, Mastercard, American Express or Discover). That fee, set by the payment network the credit card runs on, is usually between 1% and 3% of the transaction — and many merchants have long complained that it’s too costly. The bill would give merchants the ability to choose a different network to process its transactions (a Visa card wouldn’t have to run on the Visa network, for example), and proponents of the bill believe that more choices will beget lower fees.

Most credit unions fall below the $100 billion asset requirement and wouldn’t be directly impacted by the proposed bill. But some fear the potential domino effect that this bill may have on these institutions’ ability to give back to their communities.

The feared ripple effects on credit unions

With assets of over $100 billion, there’s only one major credit union that would be directly impacted by the Credit Card Competition Act. Navy Federal Credit Union has 13 million members — many with ties to the military, including their qualifying relatives — and branches near military installations and overseas. The credit union declined to comment on the potential impact the bill would have on its community.

“It only impacts a single credit union,” says Doug Kantor, a member of the Merchants Payments Coalition executive committee and general counsel at the National Association of Convenience Stores. “All the rest are exempt from the bill.”

Still, while the rest of the nation’s credit unions would not be affected directly, concerns persist. For Mike Lee, president and CEO of KCT Credit Union in Illinois, there’s worry that the proposed legislation could have lasting indirect impact. Credit unions earn interchange fees when their cards are swiped, same as the big banks. The bill could drive interchange income down for credit unions if Mastercard and Visa have to eventually lower their costs to compete with another network.

“We just don’t have a lot of fat, so even something as small as interchange, taking that away from me is going to have an effect on the credit union,” Lee says. “I might not be able to be as cheap on loans as I was, I maybe can’t offer as good a CD. When you’re already working on low margins, the well is not endless.”

KCT Credit Union also shares its interchange revenue with the community like the school district’s foundation, which provides scholarships for kids and grants for teachers to fix up their classrooms or cover school supplies, according to Lee. “If they mess with this a lot, all of these partners, all of these school districts I’m sharing my interchange with, I don’t know if I can do that anymore,” he says.

On the opposite end, the measure’s sponsors argue that competition in the marketplace will benefit consumers. “Our legislation would rein in the big banks and the credit card industry, drive down costs for convenience stores, gas stations and other small businesses, and ultimately pass those savings down to consumers,” said bill sponsor U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, in a news release.

But whether those savings are actually passed down to consumers by merchants is debatable. After all, there’s no guarantee or way to ensure that they do so.

Will past predict future?

There’s some precedent for swipe-fee legislation. In 2010, Sen. Durbin sponsored legislation that succeeded in reducing swipe fees on debit card purchases, and its subsequent impact on consumers is arguable.

Multiple studies conducted since the 2010 Durbin amendment became law conclude that the cap imposed on debit card interchange fees did not significantly lower prices for consumers. A 2015 economic brief published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond showed that more than 21% of merchants actually increased their prices after the rule went into effect.

By contrast, some members of the opposition, like the Merchant Payments Coalition, have cited a study by Robert Shapiro, a Georgetown University economist, which claims that the Durbin amendment saved merchants an estimated $8.5 billion in 2012, the first full year that it was in effect. And $5.87 billion of those savings (69%) was passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices.

To be clear, the new credit card legislation wouldn’t impose a cap on swipe fees like the 2010 amendment did for debit cards, so its not an apples-to-apples comparison. But the broader argument, that swipe fee savings by merchants would lead to lower prices for consumers, applies to both bills.

Lower prices could have hidden effects, too

If the premise of the Credit Card Competition Act proves true — if more payment processing choices leads to lower swipe fees, and merchants pass those savings along to consumers in the form of lower prices — might hidden costs still turn up elsewhere?

Several studies suggest that Sen. Durbin’s 2010 amendment resulted in financial institutions raising checking account prices and increasing minimum balance requirements. The banks exempt from the cap also adjusted prices as a competitive response to those price changes, according to a 2017 study by the Federal Reserve. Credit unions were impacted in a similar manner, forced to reduce services to members as revenue declined, according to a 2023 report commissioned by the Credit Union National Association (now known as America’s Credit Unions) and the American Association of Credit Union Leagues. The number of credit unions has also shrunk since this legislation was implemented. Nearly a third or fewer credit unions exist today compared with the number that existed in 2011, according to that same report.

Still, some supporters of the Credit Card Competition Act claim that the Durbin amendment had no impact on the cost and accessibility of banking products.

“What happened with debit card fees didn’t cause free checking to increase, didn’t cause it to decrease,” Kantor says. “Free checking is determined based on the financial institutions wanting to compete for customer deposits, and that’s driven by a whole bunch of other things going on in the economy, like the interest rate environment and other stuff. It’s just a misdirection from some of the large financial institutions that would rather not have to compete for business.”

The future of the bill

The Credit Card Competition Act continues to be a topic of debate across different industries that could be potentially impacted by it if it becomes law. It’s unclear whether the Credit Card Competition Act will come to fruition, or what its exact outcome could ultimately be for consumers.

Sponsors made previous attempts to attach the Credit Card Competition Act as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, but it didn’t make it into the final bill. Currently, they continue aggressively rallying support to bring it to the floor for a vote.

What you can do

Groups on both sides of the Credit Card Competition Act encourage consumers to contact their representatives in Congress:

  • The Electronic Payments Coalition opposes the legislation, predicting that it will decimate credit card rewards programs without leading to a meaningful decline in retail prices for consumers. It provides guidance for contacting lawmakers at the website Hands Off My Rewards.

  • The Merchants Payments Coalition supports the legislation, saying it will make fees paid by retailers more transparent and competitive, could lead to lower prices, and doesn’t have to affect credit card rewards programs. It explains its stance at the Merchants Payments Coalition website.

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