It looks like the Biden transition team aren’t the only ones being told to slow their roll by the Trump administration: the U.S. Department of Justice has filed a civil antitrust lawsuit to block Visa’s ability to acquire innovative fintech – and Finovate alum – Plaid.
“American consumers and business owners increasingly buy and sell goods and services online, and Visa – a monopolist in online debit services – has extracted billions of dollars from those transactions,” Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim of the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division said. “Now, Visa is attempting to acquire Plaid, a nascent competitor developing a disruptive, lower-cost option for online debit payments. If allowed to proceed, the acquisition would deprive American merchants and consumers of this innovative alternative to Visa and increase entry barriers for future innovators.”
The move by the Justice Department was anticipated. An investigation into the acquisition was launched in late October, after the department spent a year examining how the deal would impact the financial services market more broadly. And in its statement, the Department has concluded not only that the impact would not be good, but also that Visa’s motives for the acquisition are problematic, as well. DOJ accuses Visa of purchasing the fintech company as an “insurance policy” to defend its U.S. debit business. The statement indicates that Visa feared that, either by itself or in partnership with a competitor, failure to deal with the “threat” of Plaid could result in “potential downside risks of $300 million to $500 million” in its debit business.
Visa’s criticism of the lawsuit mirrors somewhat the broader critique that we often hear when politicians get involved in technology; namely, you just don’t get it. Specifically, Visa accused the government of not “understanding Plaid’s business and the highly competitive payments landscape in which Visa operates.” The company, which has 70% of the online debit transactions market compared to rival Mastercard with 25% share, added that rather than a competitor, it sees Plaid simply as a firm with complementary capabilities.
“Visa’s business faces intense competition from a variety of players,” the company’s statement read, “but Plaid is not one of them.” For its part, Plaid has not commented on the lawsuit at this point.
What are the odds of the Visa-Plaid acquisition emerging successfully from this legal challenge? While it is difficult to predict an outcome, what is catching the eye of some observers is the possibility that DOJ’s interest in Visa’s Plaid acquisition could be just the beginning. Citing language in the lawsuit that refers to Visa’s “long history” of aggressive action toward fintechs like PayPal, Bloomberg Law quoted former DOJ antitrust division attorney John Newman who said a “monopolization case” could be in the offing against Visa – even if the current case is limited to blocking the acquisition of Plaid.