Tag: fees

Senate to Limit ATM Charges?

The great thing about Cato policy papers is that even sometimes obscure topics are timeless, because government never rests when it comes to running our lives and restricting our choices.

Take the issue of bank ATM surcharges, those fees you can sometimes be charged for using another bank’s ATM.  Back in 1998, then Senator Al D’Amato proposed capping those fees.  Thankfully that effort failed.  I would like to believe one of the reasons for its failure is a 1998 Cato Briefing Paper by John Charles Bradbury, describing how ATM surcharge fees actually increase consumer choice by funding ever increasing ATM locations.

Well the Senate is at it again.  Senator Harkin has proposed an amendment to Dodd’s financial regulation bill that would cap ATM surcharge fees at 50 cents (it is not clear where Harkin came up with that number, perhaps his love of music).  The same flaws in D’Amato’s scheme twelve years ago hold true today.

The other great thing about existing Cato briefing papers is that it saves me the work of writing on the topic.  Just as well since I don’t believe I could improve upon Bradbury’s conclusions:

Consumers have the ability to obtain money from their bank accounts without paying a surcharge. ATM surcharges allow banks and other ATM operators to deploy machines in more convenient locations than might otherwise be possible. Customers who are unwilling to pay a surcharge incur the cost of inconvenience, while those who value the convenience more than the cost of the fee have the option of paying for it. Senator D’Amato, Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)–Congress’s self-proclaimed socialist–and numerous consumer groups have formed an unlikely coalition to put an end to ATM surcharges. If successful, that campaign would limit the options of consumers, since there would be no means to support the more convenient ATM machines. Prohibiting ATM surcharges would only harm consumers by slowing the expansion of ATMs and reducing the number of ATMs currently deployed without making anyone better off.

In Case This Needs Saying: It’s a Tax

Last week, President Obama unveiled a plan for something he called a ”Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee,” to be fleshed out in his forthcoming budget proposal. He will seek to have some set of financial services providers pay money to the government as comeuppance for the recent financial crisis and government involvement in trying to remedy it.

The naming of the “Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee” is a fairly conspicuous attempt to avoid calling it a tax. (My colleague David Boaz points out the sheer number of taxes the Obama administration and its allies are considering.) But it’s fairly clear that this thing is, indeed, a tax.

The galaxy of government revenues has a number of different planets—taxes, fees, penalties, and a few others. If they’re well constructed, fees are generally favored because the recipients of services or benefits pay their costs. Fees avoid redistribution of wealth (either toward or away from payers). But this doesn’t mean that you can name any payment to the government a ”fee” and produce fair and appropriate results.

When I worked on Capitol Hill, I was tasked with writing a bill to deny federal agencies the power to raise taxes, requiring them to be approved by Congress. (You’d think that only Congress should set or raise taxes, right? Sorry to disappoint.) The goal was not to draw fee-setting into the ambit of the bill.

After extensive reasearch into the dividing line between fees and taxes, which is not as simple as one might imagine, I produced the following definition, as found in the Taxpayer’s Defense Act (introduced in the House during the 105th Congress, and the House and Senate in the 106th Congress):

[T]he term “tax” means a non-penal, mandatory payment of money or its equivalent to the extent such payment does not compensate the Federal Government or other payee for a specific benefit conferred directly on the payer.

Parsing it briefly: A penalty is not a tax. A voluntary payment is not a tax. Both payments of money and tranfers of value not denominated in dollars can be taxes. A payment that compensates a benefit conferred is not a tax, but the part of a payment going above the benefit conferred is. Non-tax payments are for a specific benefit conferred directly on the payer, not benefits conferred on regulated entities generally or on the country as a whole. (Though this isn’t specified in the definition, being regulated isn’t a benefit.)

With even the New York Times referring to President Obama’s “Financial Crisis Responsibility Fee” as a “tax,” there doesn’t seem to be much chance of that the administration will get the “fee” label to stick. But, just in case, here’s confirmation: It’s a tax.

Obama Bank Tax Is Misguided

Perhaps I am a little confused, but didn’t the Obama Administration tell the American public only months ago that TARP was turning a profit?   But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP. Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer. He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why: the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

If the effort is really about deficit reduction, then it completely misses the mark.  Any serious deficit reduction plan has to start with Medicare and Social Security.  Assessing bank fees is nothing more than a rounding error in terms of the deficit.  Let’s put aside the politics and get serious about both fixing our financial system and bringing our fiscal house into order.  The problem driving our deficits is not a lack of revenues, aside from effects of the recession, revenues have remained stable as a percent of GDP, the problem is runaway spending.

The bank tax would also miss what one has to guess is Obama’s target, the bank CEOs.  Econ 101 tells us (maybe the President can ask Larry Summers for some tutoring) corporations do not bear the incidence of taxes, their consumers and shareholders do.   So the real outcome of this proposed tax would be to increase consumer banking costs while reducing the value of bank equity, all at a time when banks are already under-capitalized.

But now the same administration is proposing to assess a fee on banks to cover losses from the TARP.  Maybe President Obama is coming around to the realization that the TARP has indeed been a loser for the taxpayer.  He appears, however, to be missing the critical reason why:  the bailouts of the auto companies and AIG, all non-banks. This is to say nothing of the bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, whose losses will far exceed those from the TARP. Where is the plan to re-coup losses from Fannie and Freddie? Or a plan to re-coup our rescue of the autos?

Congress Just Raised Our Credit Card Fees

Technically, it was the companies which raised their fees.  But they did so to anticipate new legislative restrictions on fees taking effect.  Congress wanted to cut costs for consumers, but ended up costing them instead.

Reports the Washington Post:

Credit card companies are raising interest rates and fees seven months before new rules go into effect that will limit their ability to do so, much to the irritation of Congress and consumer advocates.

Chase, for instance, will raise the minimum payment required of some of its customers from 2 percent to 5 percent of the statement balance starting in August. Chase and Discover have increased the maximum fee charged for transferring a balance to the card to 5 percent of the amount, up from 3 and 4 percent, respectively. Bank of America last month raised the transaction fee for balance transfers and cash advances from 3 to 4 percent. Card issuers including Bank of America and Citi also continue to cut limits and hike up rates, which they have been doing with more frequency since January.

“This is a common practice and will continue to be common, because issuers can do these things for really no reason until February,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for Credit.com, which tracks the industry. “It’s what I call the Credit Card Trifecta – lower limits, higher rates, higher minimum payments.”

It’s not just the top card issuers making changes. Atlanta-based InfiBank, for example, will raise the minimum annual percentage rate it charges nearly all of its customers in September “in order to more effectively manage the profitability of our credit card account portfolio in a very challenging economic environment,” said spokesman Kevin C. Langin.

The flurry of activity, which the banks say is necessary to shore up their revenue losses, has irked members of Congress, who passed a new credit card law, which was signed by President Obama in May. The law, among other things, would prevent card companies from raising rates on existing balances unless the borrower was at least 60 days late and would require the original rate to be restored if payments are received on time for six months. The law would also require banks to get customers’ permission before allowing them to go over their limits, for which they would have to pay a fee.

One hates to think of what additional “help” Congress plans on providing for us in the future.