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Swipe fees cut, but restaurant associations say not enough

Foodservice and other trade association executives voiced disappointment in the Federal Reserve Board’s decision Wednesday to set debit-card “swipe” or “interchange” fees at a higher rate than originally had been anticipated.

The Fed said in the ruling it would limit the fees that banks can charge operators and retailers to 21 cents per transaction, higher than the initial proposed cap of about 12 cents per transaction. Previously, businesses had been paying an average of 44 cents per transaction.

“We’re deeply disappointed,” said Rob Green, executive director of the National Council of Chain Restaurants, a division of the National Retail Federation in Washington, D.C. “It’s perplexing. Based on what Congress had directed the Fed to reflect in its deliberations, we think it deviated from its original proposal.

“The debate in Congress was between Main Street and the big banks,” he said. “It looks like Main Street won in Congress, and the big banks won at the Fed.”

Scott DeFife, executive vice president of Policy and Government Affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said the association was “shocked and angered and concerned,” and questioned why the Federal Reserve allowed so many of the banks’ fixed-cost arguments to factor into the final regulation.

National Retail Federation president and chief executive Matthew Shay said: “We are extremely disappointed that the Federal Reserve chose to be influenced by special interests and ignored the will of Congress and American consumers. While the rate will provide modest relief, it does not go far enough.”

The new rate ceiling is expected to take effect Oct. 1, which also is later than the July 21 date that previously had been set.

In earlier comments to the Federal Reserve about the impact interchange fees have on chain restaurants, NCCR said high transaction fee levels would be particularly difficult for chain restaurants that rely mostly on small-ticket transactions.

The swipe fee issue has long pitted restaurant operators and retailers of all sizes against financial institutions. Opponents of the high rates had argued that debit-card fees were set unnecessarily high and that banks and card companies refused to negotiate with restaurateurs and retailers.

Restaurateurs also maintained that the rising debit card fees posed one of the industry’s fastest-rising costs, cutting deeply into operators’ already narrow margins.

Earlier, DeFife had said that debit card swipe fee rates were “increasing at levels that often exceed the rate increases restaurant operators face for all other costs, including food, energy and healthcare.”

Congress had enacted the law last year to cap swipe fees. However, the Senate subsequently introduced an amendment that sought to delay the law’s implementation. Foodservice and retail associations praised Senators when the amendment, which was introduced by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., was rejected June 8 by a vote of 54 to 45.

Contact Paul Frumkin at [email protected].

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