Joseph W. Saunders, Visa Inc.'s chairman and chief executive officer, affirmed his company's long-term guidance Thursday, despite the difficult macroecononic environment and a changing competitive landscape.
"I'm planning for the worst," Mr. Saunders told investors Thursday morning at a New York conference held by Goldman Sachs Group Inc. But regardless of where the economy "bottoms out, our draconian, worst-case assumptions put us in the position of delivering on our earnings per share and our operating margins."
He also addressed the changing competitive field for Visa and other payments networks, especially in the midst of issuer consolidation.
Visa won the debit card portfolio of Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC and its U.S. banking arm, Citizens Financial Group, from MasterCard Inc. this year, and Mr. Saunders pronounced himself "pretty comfortable with how things have gone" in the continuing consolidation of Visa's current and potential issuing partners. But he indicated that Visa would not defend all its partnerships at any cost.
"In the old days, MasterCard and Visa used to fight for share without much regard for what it did for them," he said in response to an analyst question. "MasterCard can't do that any longer, and I'm not going to." But "rest assured," he said, "that if I lose any business, then whoever gets the business is losing money with it. It's a desperation play."
A spokesman for MasterCard said the company "is — and has long been — focused on profitable business … rather than growing share for share's sake. As such, we don't focus on share as a key metric to measure the success of our business. It is understandable that others have come around to this way of thinking."
Mr. Saunders also dismissed persistent speculation about the possibility of a major issuer's entering the network business directly and competing against Visa.
Even after buying other banks, "I would be very surprised if JPMorgan or the Bank of America or Wells Fargo tried to get together and tried to circumvent Visa … ; it wouldn't make any sense [for] them," he said in response to a question.
And "if an entity bought Discover, it's more likely than not they'd put a Visa or MasterCard brand on the Discover card and take down the network," he said. (Discover Financial Services said it could not comment by press time.)
Mr. Saunders affirmed the guidance Visa gave in October for annual net revenue growth at "the lower end" of an 11% to 15% range for the next fiscal year.
"Even if our revenue growth were to fall below our guidance, we are very confident in our ability to achieve our stated operating margin and EPS goals for 2009," he said.
"Our product and geographic diversity offers some level of resiliency, and that level of resiliency has been quite pronounced during 2008," Mr. Saunders said. He also cited Visa's effort to increase operating efficiencies as a public company and "eliminat[e] unnecessary costs … so that we put ourselves in a superior condition as it relates to delivering on our guidance regardless of what happens in the economy."
Debit cards will continue to drive Visa's growth even in the face of weakened consumer spending, especially on discretionary items, he said, though this has slowed credit card growth. "We continue to be very, very happy with our debit card penetration," and "we continue to be wary about what's going on in the credit card business in the United States," he said in response to a question.
Late Thursday afternoon Visa shares were off about 0.5% at $52.90 a share. They have fallen about 40% since the high reached in May.