Visa’s Acquisition of Plaid – Who Benefits Most?

Now that the deal, announced at the beginning of the year, has finally been cleared, what do Plaid and VIsa stand to gain from it?

Simon De Broise, Senior Associate at Collyer Bristow, examines the likely impact of the acquisition on the two companies and the financial sector as a whole.

The UK Competition and Markets Authority recently cleared the global card network Visa’s acquisition of Plaid, a US-based fintech, whose primary business is to act as an ‘aggregator’ in the payments sector. The deal, first announced in January of this year, is another interesting tie-up between a fintech and one of the established card networks, and the jury is out on whether this move will help or hinder the open banking movement. The acquisition comes at a somewhat difficult time for Visa, as we recently learned that it is being investigated by the European Commission after complaints of anti-competitive behaviour from e-money providers.

Plaid’s aggregator business provides third-party apps and financial institutions with secure access to consumers’ bank accounts, either by means of the aggregator entering into Application Programming Interface (or API) agreements with the consumer’s bank or by managing the consumer’s banking login details directly (a method that banks are now clamping down on for obvious security reasons).

The benefits of this deal for Plaid are plain to see. The aggregator market is competitive and the issuing banks (i.e. those ultimately sending payments from consumers’ accounts) are in a strong position to decide how and when, and with whom, they do business. For instance, the ‘scraping’ of consumers’ online banking details by aggregators for use with other institutions is increasingly considered by banks to be unnecessarily risky from a data security point of view. This means aggregators entering into an API agreement, which are notoriously difficult for aggregators to negotiate, and so the tie up with Visa is likely to put Plaid in a much stronger negotiating position when it comes to doing business with the large retail banks.

The aggregator market is competitive and the issuing banks (i.e. those ultimately sending payments from consumers’ accounts) are in a strong position to decide how and when, and with whom, they do business.

How the deal benefits Visa is more difficult to see. This is certainly not the first time that Visa has made a relatively large investment in a fintech company – it took a stake in the hugely successful Klarna in 2017 – but, in the scheme of Visa’s existing customer base and market share, the purchase of Plaid seems unlikely to have a big impact on the business. One view is that Visa is positioning itself for the greater adoption of ‘open banking’ (the idea that consumers and SMEs allow financial institutions access to some, or all, of their banking data, which in turn provides them with more advantageous terms on certain products and services). As noted above, this would certainly boost Plaid’s power in the market, in particular when dealing with retail banks, and some suggest that this could lead to a more standardised approach to agreeing APIs, thereby making it easier for other participants also and facilitating the development of open banking more generally.

Another view is that the acquisition has little to do with facilitating open banking for all, but rather that Visa is attempting to control the development of open banking in a way that suits its strategic goal of becoming the ‘network of networks’. The argument goes that the purchase of Plaid simply provides Visa with a further avenue through which to channel its existing business – which is to earn revenue from payment transactions. Precisely how it might do this is not yet clear, but it is quite possible that Visa could introduce a revenue raising measure that is something similar to the interchange fees that are currently levied on card payments.

The European Commission’s investigation into Visa may or may not impact on its strategy for Plaid, but, in any event, how Visa develops it aggregator business will be watched closely in the payments sector. Banks, whilst still in a relatively strong position to dictate business terms, will be conscious that the game has changed somewhat given the scale that Visa can now apply to Plaid’s business operations. Others in the sector, fellow aggregators in particular, will hope that the direction of travel will eventually provide them easier access to banking data and, with it, further opportunities in the open banking market.

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