MasterCard International's global transaction volume on credit and debit cards was $727 billion in 1999, up 12.7% from the year before, the association said last week.

Though MasterCard said it was pleased with the results, the association still has a long way to go to catch up to Visa, the dominant bank card brand. MasterCard's worldwide volume was roughly equal to its rival's volume just in the United States, where spending on Visa cards rose 18%, to $721.1 billion.

Visa has yet to release its 1999 global transaction numbers.

MasterCard's transaction total in the United States last year was $352.1 billion, about 49% of Visa's, and its U.S. volume rose 13.3%.

"The scale difference between the two associations has gotten to be so wide that it's extremely difficult for MasterCard to gain share," said David Robertson, president of The Nilson Report, an industry newsletter in Oxnard, Calif. "MasterCard will need to rely on a much more focused strategy and will have to pick and choose its battles, as it no longer has the option of being all things to all people."

MasterCard says it is zeroing in on corporate card programs, which it says had "explosive growth" last year. Though Visa has the lion's share of the market, MasterCard is growing slightly faster, according to The Nilson Report.

Spending on MasterCard purchasing cards grew 0.16% last year, giving the association 26.01% of the market. Spending on Visa purchasing cards grew 0.12%, giving Visa a 47.09% share.

However, MasterCard's share of U.S. transaction volume - credit and debit purchases and cash withdrawals - dropped 0.62%, to 26.24%, according to the newsletter. Visa's share grew 0.95%, to 53.75%.

MasterCard said it did especially well in the fourth quarter in both global and U.S. dollar volumes. Spending on its cards reached $206.6 billion - the first time it broke $200 billion in a quarter. U.S. transaction dollar volume topped $100 billion, also a first for one quarter.

MasterCard also widened its merchant network. By yearend 17.4 million merchants worldwide accepted MasterCard, up 8% from 16.2 million the year earlier. The worldwide circulation of credit and debit cards with MasterCard, Cirrus, and Maestro logos exceeded a billion.

The research firm BAIGlobal in Tarrytown, N.Y., said MasterCard's share of U.S. mail solicitations stood at more than 50% at yearend, a finding MasterCard calls "a leading indicator of card growth."

Robert W. Selander, president and chief executive officer of MasterCard, said the company's results last year were aided by policy changes that made it more responsive to its bank members' concerns.

"We've sharpened the focus on our members, strengthened our product offerings, and differentiated ourselves from the competition," Mr. Selander said. "As the global payments industry continues its rapid change, MasterCard is creating and executing programs in both the physical and virtual worlds to support and build the brand."

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