The credit card industry on the whole has had a tough two years. Debt-disabled and defaulted consumers stopped spending, which ate into profits just as new credit rules capped fees and cemented the terms of card agreements. Those times seem to be over, as the Commerce Department saw retail spending jump 8% in the first four months of the year, while the Consumer Confidence Index trended upward in three of the past four months -- though a more than eight-point drop in March amid nearly $4 gas prices was cause for concern.
If not for MasterCard's diversification and reduced dependence on debit cards, it would be tough to distinguish the credit card not only from competitor Visa, but from their recession-resistant foe, American Express.
Any degree of recovery is welcome news for Visa and MasterCard, which spent last year wringing their corporate hands over the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act and are still fighting over debit card elements of Dodd-Frank financial regulation slated to go into effect in July. The companies worried that the CARD Act -- which ordered banks to freeze interest rates on new accounts until a year after they're opened and thus reduce consumer contributions -- would force banks to pass on additional costs to them.
The banks, however, fiddled with rates before the CARD Act went into effect and began attracting customers with sterling credit by offering income-driven, rewards-based cards (such as
Sapphire) that, in some cases, could also bring banks an annual fee for their troubles.
"The CARD Act really has had no impact on Visa and MasterCard, because they are just the payment transaction system," says Ellen Cannon, editorial director for
. "Neither of them sets APRs or fees -- the issuing banks do that."
Dodd-Frank, though, would cap debit-card "swipe fees" charged to merchants and potentially crush credit card companies' revenue from business transactions, which bring in roughly $13 billion a year.
The government's manhandling of bank-based credit providers worked out great for consumers and businesses, but briefly staggered credit card companies' stock prices. Shares of Purchase, N.Y.-based MasterCard fell 21% last year, while those of San Francisco-based Visa have dropped 17%, compared with a 2% dip in the S&P 500. This year, however, MasterCard saw its shares increase 29% since September, and Visa's shares rose 17%, compared with a 23% jump in the S&P over the same period.
Questions about potential debit card regulations continue to loom. The Federal Reserve is finalizing rules that could crimp fees businesses pay to card companies for processing transactions. The amendment, which seeks to limit the "swipe fees" merchants pay, is part of the sweeping financial reform bill signed into law last month. The Fed will decide what those fees should be.
Each company has used nearly identical market strategies to expand their networks (MasterCard through Cirrus, Maestro and PayPass; Visa through VisaNet, Plus, Interlink and PayWave) and innovate on products (through text-message transaction updates and RFID-chip touch-sensor wands). If not for MasterCard's diversification and reduced dependence on debit cards, it would be tough to distinguish not only from Visa, but from their recession-resistant, nonrevolving foe,
"Both Visa and MasterCard have fancy rewards programs (Visa Signature, MasterCard WorldPoints) that consumers can get regardless of which issuer's card they use, and the programs are growing as credit card companies seek to attract more affluent (and hopefully less risky) customers," Cannon says in an email. "These programs offer concierge services, access to special events and concerts, shopping specials -- things American Express has done for clients for a while."
Analysts expect MasterCard to boost revenue 11% this year and Visa to climb 14%. MasterCard's growth may trail Visa's, but those predictions don't account for a swipe fee decision from the Fed and its potentially powerful impact on Visa, which counts on debit cards for 58% of revenue collected from payment transactions. Debit cards deliver only 38% of MasterCard's payment transaction revenue.
"Basically, the government is going to set a price or percentage that the card issuers like
Bank of America
, etc., can charge merchants," Cannon says. "With the Visa or MasterCard transaction fee tacked onto that, the issuers might want Visa and MasterCard to charge a lower percentage to help the issuers bear the loss."
MasterCard should hope Visa doesn't escape Dodd-Frank's so-called Durbin amendment unscathed, as the 20.10 price-to-earnings ratio on MasterCard's share makes Visa's 18.28 seem paltry by comparison. It also doesn't help that since their IPOs -- MasterCard in 2006 and Visa in 2008 -- Visa has been the king of market capitalization, with $56.4 billion to MasterCard's $35.9 billion. MasterCard has come up bigger for shareholders, increasing share price to seven times its IPO in four years, but without a little help from swipe fee regulation, MasterCard could have a hard time distinguishing itself from a competitor that's already built a huge base among consumers.
"They've both gone up and down, interestingly nearly in lockstep," Cannon says. "However, Visa has always had a much higher share price, which makes sense because Visa is gigantic compared with all of the others."
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.