Welcome back to the Protocol Power Index, a ranking of the most powerful companies by tech industry subsector, as well as the companies best positioned to challenge them. This time: payments infrastructure.
The payments stack has been evolving dramatically in the last decade with the rise of ecommerce and new forms of money transfers, and though it's a sector that's been touched by Midas through each of its iterations, there's somehow still space for newcomers to be minted. Payments giants have ceded coveted territory to new market entrants during the process, but they are hardly down for the count.
The industry stalwarts, Visa, Mastercard and PayPal, are together worth around $1 trillion. Square is worth $100 billion and Stripe was valued at just shy of the same number in its last financing. But no two companies in this Power Index have taken the same track to their current status as frontrunners. In fact, the payments ecosystem is so large that there's room for more than one winner — and often those winners partner tightly even as they compete, creating a complex web of alliances and rivalries within the space.
They are all united, though, in confronting technological shifts in the world of payments: the rise of "buy now, pay later;" the possibilities afforded by cryptocurrencies; the ever-faster processing of payments. All the companies on this list are moulding themselves to prepare for a future shaped by these trends — even if they don't yet know exactly what it will look like.
But which companies have the lead right now? And which ones are challenging that dominance? We've ranked the market for you.
|Power Score: 84.75||Momentum Score: 71.76 (2)||HQ: San Francisco, CA||CEO: Jack Dorsey||Founded: 2009|
There clearly aren't many round holes in fintech, because there are very few places where Square doesn't fit in. With its aggressive acquisition strategy and a resulting set of products that now ranges from peer-to-peer payments and investing to business lending, crypto and a soon-to-arrive "buy now, pay later" service, Square has found itself at the forefront of the conversation in a number of quickly growing areas of fintech. The creation of its new TBD crypto business and acquisition of Afterpay suggests a willingness to be aggressive on multiple fronts at once. And the company's 56% year-over-year increase in gross payment volume through the first half of 2021 is an indication that the strategy is working. But where Square really stands out is through its newfound willingness to connect businesses it had once let run autonomously in order to scale at a breathtaking pace.
|Power Score: 81.44||Momentum Score: 22.35 (7)||HQ: Foster City, CA||CEO: Alfred F. Kelly, Jr.||Founded: 1958|
Visa is the payments industry's old money. For generations, the company has been at the forefront of global finance, owning the prime real estate of the consumer's wallet (60% of the credit and debit card market) while forging lucrative partnerships with banks from Wall Street to Main Street. But in the last five years, Visa's tech focus has propelled the company to new heights in the broader financial sector, especially as its strategy diverged from that of competitor Mastercard — for example, by building out the Visa Direct payment rails. And despite a blip in its failed acquisition of Plaid, Visa is also pushing hard into areas like open banking and crypto. It even bought an NFT.
|Power Score: 80.37||Momentum Score: 88.24 (1)||HQ: San Francisco, CA & Dublin, Ireland||CEO: Patrick Collison||Founded: 2009|
At $95 billion, Stripe is Silicon Valley's most valuable private company — for now at least — and it's coming off a year where it saw its valuation triple and its headcount double. For Stripe, it's been a long time coming, following years of being viewed as undervalued and undercovered. Where the other companies in this Power Index have more of a consumer focus, Stripe has put its resources into building out its B2B operations, starting first with payments infrastructure but, over time, moving to other SME-focused services, like its tax product and accounting service to build out a full portfolio of services a business needs to run its finances. It's arguably the most tech-forward of the largest companies in the payments infrastructure space — something it will no doubt seek to leverage if its much-rumored IPO finally happens in 2022.
|Power Score: 79.89||Momentum Score: 30.59 (5)||HQ: New York, NY||CEO: Stephen Squeri||Founded: 1850|
American Express doesn't have the luxury of volume that Visa and Mastercard enjoy. But the company's approach to digital payments and its dual role as card issuer and network operator have kept it a leader in the space, especially as it has forged partnerships with newer-wave payments companies. AmEx's long-running partnership with PayPal evolved into Send & Split, which put the company in the P2P payments space, while its acquisition of Kabbage in 2020 saw it enter the SMB lending space. Those deals are both part of a larger playbook for AmEx, with which it's seeking to build out a deeper set of products to keep customers firmly within its network.
|Power Score: 78.06||Momentum Score: 43.53 (3)||HQ: San Jose, CA||CEO: Dan Schulman||Founded: 1998|
Few companies feature as heavily in the modern history of Silicon Valley as PayPal. Famed (or, based on his recent biography, infamous) investor Peter Theil merged his startup with Elon Musk's to build PayPal into an early success story. The company acted as the foundation of trust that powered the early ecommerce era. It went public in 2002 and shortly thereafter got acquired by eBay at a $1.5 billion valuation. Under activist pressure, eBay agreed to spin out PayPal as an independent company in 2015. PayPal is now worth six times as much as its former parent thanks to timely expansions in peer-to-peer consumer payments (Venmo), digital wallets and merchant payment features — investments that paid off at the onset of the pandemic.
|Power Score: 72.22||Momentum Score: 27.06 (6)||HQ: Purchase, NY||CEO: Michael Miebach||Founded: 1966|
In many ways, Mastercard is the Pepsi to Visa's Coca-Cola: It's similar, but not quite the same, in ways that the many familiar with both might struggle to articulate. Mastercard was founded in 1966, eight years after Visa. It serves 20,000 financial institutions with 2.8 billion cards, while Visa serves 15,000 financial institutions and has over 3.5 billion cards. Mastercard generated nearly $2.1 billion in profit for the three months ended June 30, 2021 — not far off the $2.6 billion in net profit generated by Visa in that same period.Mastercard has relied on acquisitions to help keep pace, especially when it comes to fintech and blockchain. In November 2020, Mastercard struck a $825 million deal to acquire real-time data player Finicity. That gave the company an edge over Visa, since Visa was forced to walk away from a deal to acquire Finicity competitor Plaid. In September 2021, Mastercard agreed to acquire CipherTrace which it said would help "accelerate and expand crypto-related strategy." It speaks to Mastercard's broader strategy of bringing the trust consumers associate with its brand in the payments space to the blockchain and crypto fields.
|Power Score: 68.71||Momentum Score: 35.29 (4)||HQ: Riverwoods, IL||CEO: Roger C Hochschild||Founded: 1985|
Discover began as a subsidiary of the Sears department store chain (RIP) and was spun out as a public company in 1993. It then merged with Morgan Stanley in 1997 before being spun out again at the end of 2007, becoming the public entity it is today. Like Visa and Mastercard, Discover operates its own payment rails, though on a much smaller scale. For the quarter ended June 30, 2021, Discover processed 2.2 billion transactions on its networks. By comparison, Visa processed 42 billion transactions in that same time. As you might expect, Discover's market cap of nearly $36 billion is considerably smaller than that of its larger counterparts in Visa ($455 billion) and Mastercard ($361 billion). Still, Discover's market cap has grown at a faster rate of 143% year over year.
In recent times, Discover has made moves attempting to build its business for the future. That includes a 2020 investment in Marqeta that generated a significant return when the credit-card issuing service went public in June 2021. And in February 2021, Discover also entered an agreement with Sezzle to offer "buy now, pay later" payment options. The fintech boom has given Discover a chance to forge its own path outside the shadow of Visa and Mastercard; it can now invest in new product areas on levels of the payments stack above the rails, rather than continue to play catch-up.
|Power Score: 67.14||Momentum Score: 16.47 (10)||HQ: Denver, CO||CEO: Hikmet Ersek||Founded: 1851|
Western Union has carved a niche for itself in cross-border money transfers. The vast majority (87% in Q2 2021) of Western Union's revenue comes from consumer-to-consumer payments. However, Western Union is also on track to generate several hundred million dollars this year from bill payment services, whereby the company facilitates consumer-to-business payments, often cross-border as well. Many of Western Union's customers are relatively low-income immigrants sending cash home from developed nations. The company adjusts its fees based on the sum of money sent and the destination. In the consumer-to-consumer business, it facilitated 78 million transactions for Q2 2021, representing a 15% increase from the same period a year prior. Newer digital payment services offer immigrants more affordable means of sending money back home, though, and as these alternatives gain in popularity, Western Union will face mounting pressure to reduce its fees or adapt its entire business model. The latter would of course be more difficult, but perhaps the only long-term solution.
|Power Score: 62.42||Momentum Score: 20.00 (9)||HQ: Brookfield, WI||CEO: Frank Bisignano||Founded: 1984|
Founded in 1984, Fiserv is a payments processor and fintech company that has been on an incredible growth streak in recent years thanks to its broad product portfolio. The company is based in Brookfield, Wisconsin, though it has more than 30,000 employees scattered across 100 countries and most recently announced a campus expansion in New Jersey.
Fiserv has achieved considerable success by expanding its tech stack through numerous (sometimes convoluted) acquisitions. For example, in 2019, Fiserv acquired First Data which, seven years earlier, had itself acquired the point-of-sale company Clover. Clover has been a tremendous success for Fiserv, with gross payment volume nearly doubling between Q2 2020 and Q2 2021 to reach $184 billion. Fiserv also formed a joint venture with Deutsche Bank in mid-2021 to offer consumer-facing payment processing through the Clover system. Acquisitions have been critical to Fiserv's success, but the company has successfully launched some in-house products. In 2020, it launched the omnichannel payment processor Carat, which has been used for crypto wallet and fast-food mobile ordering alike. Fiserv's innovation-through-acquisition strategy will limit its overall growth potential, since it doesn't have enough capital to acquire the truly disruptive players in the payments space. This dynamic is reflected in Fiserv's relatively low Momentum Score.
|Power Score: 60.05||Momentum Score: 21.18 (8)||HQ: Jacksonville, FL||CEO: Gary A. Norcross||Founded: 1968|
FIS, or Fidelity National Information Services, is a more than 50-year-old company based out of Jacksonville, Florida. It offers a broad range of banking and merchant payment products, many of which were added to FIS's product portfolio through acquisition. Merchant solutions revenue is FIS's fastest-growing revenue segment, as it accounted for $1.2 billion in revenue for Q2 2021, which represented 45% year-over-year growth. Banking solutions was still the largest revenue-generating segment that quarter for FIS, however, as it generated $1.6 billion, up 8% year-over-year.
With nearly 46,000 employees, FIS is a hefty corporation in terms of headcount. Its market cap grew only 3% in the last year, from nearly $85 billion to nearly $88 billion. A major challenge for FIS will be proving it can launch fintech products that compete with the more agile players in the fintech space — and talent could be a barrier there, as it had the lowest proportion of employees with previous Big Tech experience of the companies in this Power Index. Acquisitions have helped FIS stay relevant, but they aren't positioning the company as a disruptor, as reflected in the low Momentum Score.
Explore the Data
The Protocol Power Index is designed to view power through a holistic lens that reflects how modern tech companies amass and exercise their strength. To do so, the Power Index takes into account 30 metrics across five categories — Economics, Leadership, Innovation, People and Politics & Policy — and synthesizes them into a single Power Score. Read our full methodology statement here.
What happens next?
Forces that stand to shape payments in the coming years include: the rise of "buy now, pay later" as an alternative to traditional credit, improved fraud detection and the (admittedly remote) possibility that cryptocurrencies become a viable alternative payments system.
Traditional payment providers risk losing market share as BNPL continues to gain popularity.
- BNPL is taking off as an alternative to traditional consumer credit. The sector has been buzzing with activity in recent months, with Amazon and Shopify forging partnerships with Affirm, Square purchasing Afterpay for $29 billion and PayPal agreeing to buy the Japanese BNPL provider Paidy for $2.7 billion to expedite growth after launching BNPL services last year. Apple and Goldman Sachs are rumored to want in on BNPL. Visa, AmEx and Citi are also all hoping to throw their hats into the ring.
- Tom Seo, a venture capitalist at Dash Fund, told Protocol this year that BNPL has become "table stakes" for any ecommerce or payments company. Seo added, "something is wrong if you don't have it."
- BNPL has become a popular alternative to traditional credit, particularly among younger consumers. BNPL can help customers avoid interest charges associated with a typical credit card, as some BNPL firms, including Affirm and PayPal, don't charge consumers late fees for missed payments.
- Merchants stand to gain from BNPL adoption as the lower upfront payment can entice consumers to spend more. Klarna, for instance, suggests retailers with BNPL options can expect to see a 45% increase in average order value. (Critics of BNPL say it can encourage reckless spending, though that's also possible with traditional credit.) Given this upside, merchants are often willing to pay higher fees on BNPL transactions relative to the 2-3% charge taken on comparable Visa or Mastercard transactions.
- So while BNPL represents a new opportunity for payments providers, it also comes with heightened competition.
Advancements in AI will improve fraud detection, which is a huge expense for payment companies.
- In the Protocol Braintrust from January 2021, Mastercard's Ed McLaughlin said the company experiences 200 fraud attempts per minute. McLaughlin said Mastercard's investment in AI-powered fraud detection has helped it block $55 billion in confirmed fraud with a 60% decrease in false declines.
- Further advancements in AI promise to help payments companies clamp down on fraud with greater speed and accuracy. Major financial institutions such as Citi and American Express have poured money into developing AI fraud detection tools. The sector has also received considerable VC investment in recent years: Several startups — including Jumio, Onfido, Payfone, BioCatch and Feedzai — have each raised well over $100 million in VC funding to tackle financial fraud using ML and AI.
- While AI-powered fraud detection has the potential to be a significant boon to payment providers, it also comes with risks surrounding allegations of privacy overreach and bias. Earlier this year, the insurance startup Lemonade published a tweet suggesting it could use AI to detect fraudulent customer claims based on "non-verbal cues." The company later deleted the tweet and said it was poorly worded seeing as they have no plans to use AI to deny claims based on physical or personal features. The incident highlights the care with which companies need to roll out AI fraud detection features; miscues in this realm could draw public outcry and regulatory scrutiny.
Finally, cryptocurrencies could disrupt the payments industry. But that's a very large "could," because even though cryptocurrencies are clearly here to stay, that doesn't mean they'll materially change the role of payment providers.
- The mainstream cryptocurrencies can't yet handle the volume of transactions necessary to become a mainstream payments provider. Whereas legacy payments providers can handle thousands of transactions per second, the Bitcoin blockchain can only handle three to seven and the Ethereum blockchain can handle around 15, according to Deloitte Insights. Lightning technology, Ethereum 2.0 and other emerging protocols are critical to watch, as they could strengthen crypto's usefulness for transactions.
- At present, though, crypto payments take far too long to settle. By contrast, real-time payments using existing, non-blockchain systems are gaining mainstream adoption, with payment volume rising 41% in 2020 to reach 70.3 billion transactions globally.
- Making payments on cryptocurrency blockchains is also expensive. Transaction fees can be pushed higher by geopolitical events, energy costs and blockchain demand.
- One way cryptocurrencies could displace payments providers is if a country adopts a coin as its national currency. This is exactly what happened in El Salvador, but the initiative has gotten off to a rocky start. It's also worth noting that countries with global reserve currencies — as the U.S. has and China hopes its digital yuan might be — would view decentralized cryptocurrencies as a threat to their control over the financial system.
- National governments will likely adopt their own central bank digital currencies (CBDCs), though these won't necessarily interfere with traditional payments systems. China has already launched a CBDC with its digital yuan, The Federal Reserve published research in May 2021 on the possible launch of a CBDC and the EU is actively exploring its own digital euro that could combine centralized and decentralized elements. The design of CBDCs will determine the extent to which they infringe on traditional payments. For instance, depending on design, CDBCs could largely be limited to large cross-border settlements or they could entirely replace traditional currencies and include programmable elements determining who can buy what from where.
- In the meantime, stablecoins could help bridge the gap between traditional and digital currencies. Stablecoin transaction volume has closely followed the cryptocurrency exchange transaction volume in recent years: There were approximately $3 trillion worth in stablecoin transactions in the first half of 2021, according to McKinsey and Company. Stablecoins have gained popularity as a means of circumventing high cross-border payment fees. This points to the potential for stablecoins and later CBDCs to exert downward price pressure on the fees taken by traditional payments players.
To rank the competitors, we've developed a formula that encapsulates 30 criteria. Those criteria span five groupings that factor into power: Economics, Leadership, People, Innovation & Politics and Policy. We then developed two systems for weighting the criteria — one for measuring power and the other for measuring momentum — such that companies can be scored on a 0–100 scale. Read our full methodology here.