Americans’ reliance on credit cards is the key to Capital One’s bid for Discover

File - A Discover card is used to pay for gasoline at a Sam's Club in Madison, Miss., July 1, 2021. Capital One Financial is buying Discover Financial Services for $35 billion, in a deal that would bring together two of the nation's biggest lenders and credit card issuers. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

NEW YORK — Americans have become increasingly reliant on their credit cards since the pandemic. So much so that Capital One is willing to bet more than $30 billion that they won’t break the habit.

Capital One Financial announced Monday that it would buy Discover Financial Services for $35 billion. The combination could potentially shake up the payments industry, which is largely dominated by Visa and Mastercard.


For customers of the companies, it might eventually mean bigger perks and more merchant acceptance of Discover cards, and potentially lead to more competition in the payments industry.

Why is the deal important?

Some of the biggest issuers of credit cards are banks, like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup. But Capital One and Discover are first and foremost credit card companies — like American Express, but with different clientele. They have tens of millions of customers and target their products at Americans who do not travel heavily outside the U.S. and would like to get more value out of their everyday purchases like gas, groceries and domestic travel. In other words, people who typically don’t carry premium credit cards.

The combined company will have more loans to customers on its credit cards than JPMorgan and Citigroup combined. The merger also gives the Discover network the ability to fight on more equal footing with Mastercard and American Express.

Who uses Capital One and Discover?

Capital One is one of the biggest credit card companies and banks in the country. It typically operates what is known in the credit card industry as a “barbell” business model — it issues credit cards to those with less-than-great credit as well as with super high credit, and little in between. The one group keeps a balance, bringing the company interest revenue, while the high-end customers spend heavily on their cards, bringing in fee revenue from merchants.

Discover’s customers are fewer but intensely loyal to the company. The company consistently wins customer service awards, and its cash-back cards are considered among the most lucrative in the industry.

But Discover suffers from a perception that because its payment network is smaller than Visa, Mastercard or AmEx, it is less desirable. Also, Discover is largely unavailable outside the U.S. as a payment option.

Capital One executives said Tuesday that they would start allowing customers to use the Discover payment network shortly after the deal closes, which could happen by the end of the year. Capital One also plans to keep the Discover brand along with its cards, although the cards could be co-branded.

What does this deal say about credit card spending?

This deal, at its core, is a big bet that Americans will keep running up their credit card balances.

Americans have been increasing their card balances quickly amid two years of high inflation. In the fourth quarter of 2023, Americans held $1.13 trillion on their credit cards, and aggregate household debt balances increased by $212 billion, up 1.2%, according to the latest data from the New York Federal Reserve.

What’s so valuable about Discover?

It’s virtually impossible to build a credit and debit card network from scratch in today’s market. Capital One executives described previous efforts to do so as a “chicken or egg” problem, where it’s hard to get merchants to sign up for a payment network when there are few customers, and vice versa.

Chicago-based Discover may be small but its infrastructure makes it poised to grow, particularly as more transactions move away from cash. The U.S. credit card industry is dominated by the Visa-Mastercard duopoly with AmEx being a distance third place and Discover an even more distant fourth place. Roughly $6.8 trillion is run on Visa’s credit and debit network compared to the only $550 billion on Discover’s network.

Owning Discover’s network would enable Capital One to get revenue from fees charged for every merchant transaction that runs on the network.

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