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article imageAppeals court upholds Fed's debit card 'swipe fee' limits

    Mar 21, 2014 in Technology

By Emily Stephenson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court upheld the Federal Reserve's controversial rules for debit card "swipe fees" on Friday, reversing a lower court's decision to throw them out after merchants argued the charges were too high.

Businesses pay the fees to banks when customers use debit cards to purchase goods or services. The fees reimburse banks for costs involved in offering debit cards.

At the instruction of Congress, the Fed in 2011 limited the fees to 21 cents per transaction. A U.S. district court in July 2013 agreed with a group of retailers that lawmakers intended for the cap to be lower and overturned the Fed's rule.

The three-member panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the Fed on Friday, saying the law's "ambiguity" gave regulators leeway to set a higher fee cap.

"Applying traditional tools of statutory interpretation, we hold that the board's rules generally rest on reasonable constructions of the statute," the panel wrote in its opinion.

The appeals panel did direct the Fed to better explain the way it treated costs to banks of monitoring transactions for potential fraud.

A Fed spokesman did not immediately have a comment.

Neither did a spokesman for the National Retail Federation, one of the merchant groups that sued over the swipe fee rule in November 2011.

FEE CAP

Swipe fees, also known as interchange fees, are set by Visa, MasterCard and other card networks. Before Congress intervened, the fees paid by retailers were about 44 cents per transaction.

Hoping that lower fees would result in lower prices for consumers, lawmakers called for a cap in the 2010 Dodd-Frank law.

They directed the Fed to set a limit that would cover the costs to banks to provide the cards, ignoring any expenses that were not tied to specific debit transactions.

The Fed decided network processing fees, costs to monitor transactions for fraud and other expenses were relevant, even though they were not specifically mentioned in the law, and it incorporated them into the 21-cent cap.

Merchants argued those costs went beyond what was allowed under the law.

The appeals panel said Dodd-Frank's language was "confusing and its structure convoluted", but determined that it did leave room for the Fed to consider additional costs.

Banks, which opposed capping fees and supported the Fed's defense of its higher limits, applauded the appeals court's decision.

"Reasonable minds have prevailed in vacating the district court's ruling to affirm the existing rule," Richard Hunt, chief executive of the Consumer Bankers Association, a lobby group for banks, said in a statement.

"This drawn-out fight should put on notice those members of Congress who insist upon interfering with the free market."

(Reporting by Emily Stephenson; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Sophie Hares)

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