Former Visa president seeks new opportunities in financial services

October 13, 2010, 9:31 PM UTC

Hans Morris, former president of Visa Inc. (V), has joined private equity firm General Atlantic as a managing director and head of financial services investing. He previously had served as a special advisor to the firm.

So we spent a few minutes chatting with Morris, including discussion of distressed deals, attractive financial services verticals and the consequences of Dodd-Frank:

Fortune: Since you joined General Atlantic last year as a special advisor, the firm has studiously avoided distressed deals in the financial services sector. Why, given the glut of opportunities?

Morris: I think there have been some attractive deals done by private equity firms in some distressed assets, but there also has been so much money raised specifically for this purpose that the supply and demand balance has shifted in a way that makes it unattractive for us.

Also, GA focuses on growth businesses, and has since it began. We also tend to work with management teams, often in minority positions without leverage.  Investing in distressed financial institutions is good for some people, but it’s just not for us.

Ok, then what types of healthier opportunities are you looking for in the financial services sector?

One of the big trends we believe in is that the emerging markets are growing, and that large middle-classes are being formed. When a country’s GDP increases, the percentage of its economy devoted to financial services also increases. Financial services basically is a luxury good. You get capital markets, more capital formation, asset services, auto lending, credit cards, etc. The only happens when an economy has a certain percentage of middle-class people with savings to invest and assets they can use to buy things.

GA has been investing in India and China and Brazil for a long time, so we tend to look at the infrastructure associated with that type of change. For example, what types of things do banks in emerging markets use when its services are expanding?

Outside of that, we’re also continuing to focus on the electronification of securities markets and asset serving. We get a lot of deal-flow around that, because the needs are often complicated and esoteric.

Finally, my background for the past three years has been payments, which is another area changing more and more.

Speaking of payments, there has been a lot of hype about mobile payment solutions like Jack Dorsey’s Square. GA typically invests in more established companies, but could you see yourself reaching down for something like that?

Well, it’s unusual for us to do a startup, but we did recently invest in a new company called Pierpont Securities. It’s not around payments, but around treasury securities. There has been a huge growth of treasuries issuance both here and around the world, so Pierpont is a new company devoted to that.

The Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill is now law, but there are still a lot of blanks yet to be filled in. Isn’t it difficult to invest in financial services companies when you know some umbrella goals of the oversight, but not the specifics?

That’s an excellent point. I would say that nobody is able to predict with confidence what all the implications are yet of Dodd-Frank. I would even say, carefully, that not even the policymakers sorting out the details even know yet.

But there is one big conclusion we can make not just about this regulation, but also new regulations throughout the world: Capital levels are going to go up. Investors are seeing risk captured in more areas. Risk is being calculated and seen in ways not as apparent before the financial crisis. More risk means more capital. That’s a clear mega-trend, and I think it promotes caution.

You originally joined GA as a part-timer, and are now a full-timer. Was the original plan to get your feet wet before jumping all-in, or did you begin part-time and think, “Hey, I really like this?”

More the latter. I came in open-minded about it, and have found that GA is really a remarkable company with remarkable people. We tend to focus on the types of companies I find interesting, particularly growth companies with some sort of tech orientation around them.

Also, I thank God I’m not doing it by myself. I’ve learned that there is a lot I don’t know. It’s a fascinating exercise to learn how a company goes from pretty successful to very successful.