Visa Inc. and MasterCard Inc. said strains on their card-issuing customers — which have been hit far harder by the downturn, because of their credit exposure — have created hurdles for the two companies to raise prices.
In quarterly earnings reports this week, Visa and MasterCard also said the deteriorating economy and weakening trends in transaction volume are posing increasing challenges. However, the number of transactions processed on their networks continued to increase, and executives cited room to maneuver on expenses and stuck to profit growth targets of more than 20%.
MasterCard shares had gained about 13% late Thursday afternoon. Visa's were up almost 10%.
"In this kind of environment, where our customers are having very challenging times, we are going to be extremely careful" about price hikes, "and it has to be completely, directly tied to what kind of product or service we will give to them," Martina Hund-Mejean, MasterCard's chief financial officer, said on a conference call Thursday.
The company is still looking for 2% annual revenue growth from higher prices, Ms. Hund-Mejean said, but "we're going to have to deliver in order to be able to do something like that."
Pricing changes accounted for about 8 percentage points of the 14.2% increase in MasterCard's fourth-quarter revenue from a year earlier.
Visa's chief executive, Joseph Saunders, said in a conference call Wednesday that in the short run "we're going to be very careful about what we do, given the fragile state of the bottom line of our clients," especially U.S. ones.
"What we will do will be in concert with our partners, and it'll be done in a … thoughtful, surgical way," Mr. Saunders said. But "that's not where we believe our greatest opportunity lies."
Eric Grover, a former Visa executive and the principal of Intrepid Ventures, a consulting firm, said consolidation and financial pressures on issuers make price increases on core network services like switching, clearing, and settlement unlikely. However, as issuers pare back in-house expenses, "clearly there are some additional value-added services the networks should be able to sell to issuers and to price for" in areas such as fraud protection and marketing, Mr. Grover said.
In an interview Thursday, Ms. Hund-Mejean said issuers are still interested in paying for services such as those offered by Orbiscom Ltd., an Irish company MasterCard bought in December, whose technology lets cardholders control how their cards are used — prohibiting purchases in certain merchant categories, for example.
"We are selling that proposition actively into all of our customers," she said.
Mr. Saunders said Visa is "seeing signs of a more pronounced decline" in domestic payment volume growth and worldwide cross-border volume than it had expected at the beginning of the fiscal year, which started in October.
The San Francisco company stuck by its earnings growth target of more than 20% for this year, saying it had accelerated its effort to reduce costs by integrating units around the world and would cut back on marketing expenditures. "All of these efforts will be consistent with fully funding our growth initiatives," Mr. Saunders said.
MasterCard said it continues to expect revenue growth this year below its longer-term objective of 12% to 15%, though it can still achieve net income growth of 20% to 30% if revenue grows at a high-single-digit rate.
However, MasterCard's CEO, Robert Selander, said on its call that such revenue growth "will be a challenge to get to," because of volume trends observed last month. "We're working hard on creating flexibility and options as it relates to where and how we spend money, should that situation either persist or worsen over the course of the year."
Mr. Selander also said that there was only so much fat to cut, and that his Purchase, N.Y., company would continue to consider investments like the Orbiscom acquisition. "We do not want to penalize our future by mindlessly whacking away at those things that we think are valuable for improving performance."
Byron Pollitt, Visa's chief financial officer, said that last quarter U.S. credit card payment volume fell 6% from a year earlier. Debit volume grew 6% during the quarter but hit the "low single digits" in December, Mr. Pollitt said. Last month credit card volume continued to fall "in the mid-single digits," and "debit appears to have regained some momentum," rebounding to growth in "the mid-single-digit range."
Fourth-quarter U.S. credit card volume on MasterCard's network fell 11.4% from a year earlier, and U.S. debit volume increased 5.8%. Ms. Hund-Mejean said in the interview that volume trends did not appear to deteriorate further in the United States last month.
The number of transactions processed on Visa's network increased 8% in the fourth quarter, and fees based on the number of transactions accounted for about 30% of its net operating revenue.
"While payment volume and average ticket sizes are moderating in the face of much more difficult economic times, our transaction counts, which are an important component of our net revenue, are growing very well as the underlying secular shift to electronic payment … continues," Mr. Pollitt said.
Last month, according to Ms. Hund-Mejean, the number of transactions on MasterCard's network grew "a little bit" faster than the fourth-quarter increase of 6%. "People are using their cards more, but they're using it for smaller-ticket items."