The Visa winning streak continued in 1997.

All the major consumer payment organizations have come out with their numbers for last year, confirming that the card industry continued healthy growth despite concerns about credit quality.

But Visa, as it has done for a number of years, grew healthiest of all.

U.S. market share statistics compiled by The Nilson Report put Visa at 52.3% of industry volume, up from 51.49% in 1996.

MasterCard and American Express, like Visa, achieved double-digit growth rates but lost market share to the leader, as did the slower-growing Discover and Diners Club brands.

Internationally, MasterCard reported a 14% volume increase, but Visa was up 22%, and its $1.14 trillion total was less than $100 billion shy of doubling MasterCard's.

Visa did virtually double MasterCard in the United States, if volume for all credit, debit, and related products are combined.

"For the last three years every competitor we have in this business has lost market share to Visa, and that is pretty exciting for us," said Michael Beindorff, executive vice president of marketing and product management for Visa U.S.A.

Reinforcing the results by citing his company's proprietary tracking study, Mr. Beindorff said 62% of American consumers rate Visa the best overall payment card.

American Express' domestic volume climbed 14.9%, to $151 billion, while MasterCard's rose 14.8%, to $263 billion. Neither increase matched Visa's 17.2%, to $525 billion.

Visa's U.S. figure was 46% of the Visa International total, down from 48% a year earlier, reflecting the faster growth of emerging markets around the world.

Meanwhile, Visa's closest competitors found reasons to be satisfied with their showings.

"We are very pleased with the strides that we have made, and growing market share continues to be a focus for us," said Gail Wasserman, a spokeswoman for American Express Co. in New York.

The number of U.S. merchant outlets accepting American Express cards last year jumped by 13%, to 1.9 million outlets.

MasterCard and Visa each had an increase of 7.5% in the same category.

But MasterCard contended that on closer examination, it surpassed Visa in some cases. In its press release this week it claimed to be outpacing Visa "in credit and debit growth in the U.S."

The Nilson Report found that the number of active Visa credit card accounts declined by a small 43,690, to 102.4 million, while MasterCard's shot up by 8.4 million, to 75.9 million. The rise was attributed to an increase in customer solicitations.

"The number of active credit accounts is important, but more important to issuers and their profitability is the growth in outstandings," said Alan J. Heuer, president of MasterCard's U.S. region.

The Nilson Report said MasterCard had a 15% rise in outstandings, to $163 billion, while Visa went up 4%, to $234 billion, and American Express 9%, to $31 billion.

"We have strengthened the brand within consumers' minds with our new 'Priceless Moments' (advertising) campaign, and we have worked closely with members to improve member and customer focus," Mr. Heuer said.

"We will keep pushing ahead," he added. "There is no mysticism here, it's just a lot of hard work."

It remains to be seen if MasterCard can close the volume gap with Visa in any meaningful way. Visa U.S.A. president Carl Pascarella has his troops focused on a 55% market share goal, which, if achieved, would come at MasterCard's and others' continued expense.

A consultant said that one of the reasons Visa continues its overall dominance is that the more aggressive card issuers primarily issue Visa cards.

"First USA is a predominantly Visa issuer and it had the most mailings last year," said Jeffrey Baxter, principal, S.J. Baxter & Associates, Forest Hill, Md.

Visa is building on "the gains they have seen from the advertising campaign they have been running for eight or nine years, and their sponsorship of the Olympics," Mr. Baxter said.

Mr. Beindorff said the commercial card market is becoming a factor. Although it represents only 5% of Visa's card business, it grew by 45% last year.

"We have had some substantial wins from American Express, which you will hear about in the next 90 days," the marketing executive said. "They clearly indicate the kind of momentum we have begun to generate."

Visa also commands most of the U.S. debit market, with $94 billion in volume, a 72% increase. MasterCard's $17 billion showing reflected an increase of 93%.

Visa said 80% of its business is in the credit card arena, but debit is obviously growing much faster.

Another statistic Visa U.S.A. watches closely is its share of PCE- personal consumption expenditures, which totaled $5.5 trillion in 1997. Mr. Pascarella said the percentage rose to 9.6%, from 8.7% in 1996, and the gain was fueled by the Visa check debit card.

"Debit cards have become extremely popular as replacements for cash and ATM cards," Mr. Baxter said, "and there is a lot more room left for them to grow at this kind of rate."

One measure where the MasterCard-Visa gap is closing is number of cards. Visa reported 618 million cards at the end of its fiscal year last October, up 14%. MasterCard at yearend was up to 600 million for its MasterCard, Maestro, and Cirrus brands, pointing to strong gains in Latin America and Europe.

In Spain, the number of MasterCard products nearly tripled, to 3.6 million, thanks to a partnership arrangement between major banking groups and MasterCard's Europay affiliate.

Maestro cards were up 60% percent, to 149.5 million at yearend.

Mr. Baxter said the latest rash of mergers, which have been mainly among Visa banks, could further strengthen Visa's hold on the market. One wild card could be Citicorp's recent acquisition of the predominantly MasterCard AT&T portfolio.

Given the size of Visa-loyalist Citibank, the No. 1 card issuer in the world, a tilt toward MasterCard could make some difference, Mr. Baxter said.

"At the end of the day the primary competition for Visa is cash and check; that is where the biggest opportunity is," Mr. Beindorff said. "We don't want to lose sight of our (traditional) competitors, but as they fall further behind, they become less important to us."

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