Visa (NYSE:V), seeking entrance into the center of 21st century banking, has joined MasterCard (NYSE:MA) in taking a stake in fintech startup Plaid. Plaid writes application program interfaces that act as the infrastructure beneath bank accounts. This lets it power customer-facing fintech specialists like PayPal’s (NASDAQ:PYPL) Venmo, Robinhood, Chime and Betterment.
Enabling new banking services could make Plaid a sort of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) for the fintech age — an operating system for computerized banking.
Plaid has attracted $310 million in financing. Its most recent funding round valued it at $2.7 billion. Other backers include Goldman Sachs (NYSE:GS), Citigroup (NYSE:C) and American Express (NYSE:AXP).
But it’s Visa and MasterCard, which have a joint value of almost $700 billion, that are the real get. They have global scale, brand names and good reputations for security and reliability.
Plaid is ranked as the eighth largest fintech startup. The list is led by credit card issuer Stripe and includes SoFi, a lender whose name will grace the new Los Angeles football stadium. Fintech companies raised a total of nearly $40 billion last year.
Fintech startups are trying to get around the high costs of working with the present banking system. Visa and Mastercard are part of that. But Visa and Mastercard are also trying to get around those costs, seeing the growth of chat-based Chinese payment systems from Alibaba (NYSE:BABA) and Tencent Holding (OTCMKTS:TCEHY).
There was an assumption that Facebook’s (NASDAQ:FB) Libra — a cheaper payment system riding on FB’s data network — might be the first to escape the high costs. Both Visa and MasterCard were part of Libra’s 28-member founding group announced in June. But there are increasing doubts that financial regulators will allow Libra to launch, as many fear Facebook’s size. These regulators seem to have no such fears regarding the payment processors.
The Fintech Stack
Fintech is building a new financial payments stack. Right now, most of the value in the stack is in the loans it creates or the investments it enables. But as the software stack evolves, history shows that it’s the company at the bottom of that stack that gains the most power, as Microsoft did starting in the early 1990s.
Plaid CEO Zach Perret said his goal is to create a digitized financial system. Visa executive Bill Sheedy said his strategic goal is more important than the financial investment.
That strategic goal increasingly looks like a bank. Verifying users and account balances is key to enabling loans, payments and investment — essentially all the functions of banks like JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM). Visa stock’s market cap exceeded that of JPMorgan just in the last year. Many Plaid customers compete directly with banks like JPMorgan.
The Bottom Line for Visa Stock and Plaid
While Visa’s payment network has proven to have enormous financial power, it still faces challenges. It can charge merchants up to 3% of a transaction’s cost to process through its network. The money is soaked up by processors and banks that are part of the Visa stock network.
These payment networks won’t work in developing nations. The cost is too high for small merchants to bear. Instead of staying with cash, many are moving to cheaper fintech alternatives that can run through customers’ mobile phones.
Whether these merchants will stay with Chinese and Indian payment systems, or seek Western alternatives to access Western wallets, remains an open question. The Plaid investment shows just how desperate Visa and Mastercard are to answer that question in the affirmative.
Dana Blankenhorn is a financial and technology journalist. He is the author of the environmental story, Bridget O’Flynn and the Bear, available at the Amazon Kindle store. Write him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @danablankenhorn. As of this writing he owned shares in MSFT, BABA and JPM.