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Digital Payments in America – Scaling the Peak

The Economist | Mar 20, 2021

digital payments scaling in the US - Digital Payments in America - Scaling the Peak

PayPal, Stripe and others are only just getting started

A LITTLE OVER a decade ago Patrick and John Collison founded Stripe, a company in Silicon Valley that helped other tech startups accept online payments. It has since outgrown them all. On March 14th the firm said it had closed a fundraising round valuing it at $95bn—three times its valuation a mere 11 months ago, and enough to make it America’s biggest-ever unlisted firm. Stripe is not the only company cashing in on the check-out business, as the digital payments revolution finally takes off in America.

Investors’ enthusiasm for Western digital-payments companies has been whetted by the pandemic (see chart). PayPal’s share price has jumped by 180% in the past 12 months. That of Square, an American rival, has more than quintupled; and that of Adyen, based in Amsterdam, has nearly tripled. The digital boom is luring credit-card colossuses and tech titans, such as Visa and Google, to online payments. Smaller startups, meanwhile, are carving out niches. Yet markets still love the four specialists: PayPal’s shares trade at 68 times earnings; Square’s, near 510. Why are investors so bullish?

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The digital-payments industry is rather like a transport system. “Acquirers” connect the shop’s app or website to the payments infrastructure and check key details, including a buyer’s identity, probity or available funds, to authorise travel. The money then moves along the customer’s chosen type of “rail”: credit-card, bank-to-bank or mobile-wallet systems, run by distinct firms. Then come the refreshment trolleys—service providers, like buy-now-pay-later firms, that purport to make the payments journey more pleasant. Everyone takes a cut of the transaction along the way.

Three trends are helping propel the digital firms further. One is the rapid growth of e-commerce, which has been turbo-charged by the pandemic. Online-transactions volumes surged by 19% globally last year as locked-down consumers turned to the internet. And there is further to go: online payments accounted for just 45% of all retail payments tracked by Mastercard, a credit-card giant, in 2020. The second trend is the dash away from cash at bricks-and-mortar shops in favour of digital payments, which covid-19 has probably accelerated by about three to five years.

A final factor comes from increasing market share within online payments. For all of the specialists’ might, over half of digital-transaction volumes worldwide are still acquired by the captive, sluggish arms of banks, says Lisa Ellis of MoffettNathanson, a research firm. Since most lack global aspirations and e-commerce expertise, market share is bound to migrate to the online giants.


Such trends boost Visa and Mastercard, the dominant credit-and-debit card networks, too. Yet they run only one type of rail, whereas the four payment champions are mostly agnostic about which channel the money travels on. And the established card firms are also under attack from anti-trust watchdogs who worry that they make it difficult for merchants on their networks to process transactions through other, cheaper, alternatives. On March 19th shares in Visa fell after reports that the Department of Justice was investigating it.

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