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Visa’s embrace of crypto is starting to pay off

July 16, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC

These days, virtually all financial services companies are bracing for technological disruption that promises to upend business as usual. Banks know that going branchless and online-only is the future, while brokerages are trying to “democratize” investing with easy-to-use trading apps and algorithm-based robo-advisors.

Visa is well aware of this. Despite a market capitalization of more than $500 billion, the payments behemoth is trying to reposition itself accordingly. In a world in which mobile wallets and real-time payments—from PayPal to the Federal Reserve’s instant settlement network—threaten traditional cash and card transactions, the company has invested in and teamed up with would-be fintech disruptors before they can disrupt too much.

“Many years ago, we saw the beginnings of this [fintech] wave coming, and early on we decided we’re absolutely going to lean into this,” Visa president Ryan McInerney told Fortune in May. Whether it’s deploying its payment system to enable mobile wallets like Apple Pay and Google Pay, or partnering with international remittance startups like Wise and Remitly, Visa has its fingerprints all over the rapidly digitizing world of moving money.

That strategy extends to cryptocurrency, which Visa has pushed into in recent years by establishing relationships with the likes of Coinbase, Circle, and FTX, among others. The goal is to make it easier for users of those platforms to buy products and services with their cryptocurrencies, while also giving Visa new revenue opportunities from transactions involving a proliferating asset class. So far, that bet appears to be paying off.

Last week, Visa disclosed that it has partnered with no less than 50 crypto platforms via card programs that “make it easy to convert and spend digital currency at 70 million merchants worldwide.” What’s more, the company revealed that it had facilitated more than $1 billion in transactions via crypto-linked Visa cards in the first half of 2021 alone. That comes in the wake of Visa having announced in March that, for the first time, it had settled a transaction using a virtual currency—in that case, the Circle-backed stablecoin known as USD Coin (USDC).

“We want to be an on-ramp and an off-ramp between the regular world and the crypto world,” Oliver Jenkyn, Visa’s executive vice president and regional president for North America, said last month at a fintech conference hosted by RBC Capital Markets. “If you’ve got $1 million in Bitcoin in your account, for example, and you want to go buy a burger, it’s very difficult to actually make that transaction happen. But if you put a Visa card in front of that crypto wallet or crypto exchange account, then you can convert that back to fiat currency [and] go buy your burger and fries.”

At this point, Visa’s crypto platform remains a minuscule piece of a business that processed nearly $11.4 trillion in debit and credit card transactions globally last year. But the value of its efforts lay far beyond the fees Visa currently generates from its crypto-linked cards; should crypto continue to grow in use in the coming years, the company is counting that it will be in prime position to benefit.

It is an approach in line with Visa’s overall fintech strategy—one where “rather than [fintech] being a disruptive influence, it actually creates more distribution points” for Visa’s network, Bank of America analyst Jason Kupferberg told Fortune earlier this year.

Not all elements of Visa’s fintech strategy have succeeded. Its proposed $5.3 billion acquisition of financial data provider Plaid fell apart publicly last year after a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit laid bare the company’s insecurities about a burgeoning fintech “volcano,” as one Visa executive phrased it, that threatened its business.

But Visa has since rebounded from the scuppered deal, having announced the acquisition last month of Swedish fintech startup Tink, which operates a Europe-focused open banking platform similar to Plaid’s. That deal is valued at more than $2.1 billion.

Moving forward, crypto is as critical a part of Visa’s overall digital strategy as any facet of the broader fintech revolution—and one growing in importance. Cuy Sheffield, Visa’s head of crypto, told The Block last week that the company had increased its number of partnerships with crypto firms more than 40% in the previous four months alone.

“If I’m banking on a [financial services] company to maintain their current competitive position 20 years from now, one I feel most confident in is Visa,” Morningstar analyst Brett Horn told Fortune. “The [fintech] space does continue to evolve, but you never want to forget the massive advantage they enjoy, and likely will for years to come.”

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