Visa's Plaid takeover signals wave of fintech dealmaking


After last year’s deluge of financial technology megadeals, investors wondered if the boom could continue into 2020. This week, Visa Inc.’s $5.3 billion acquisition of Plaid Inc. offered an answer: Yes.

“Visa buying Plaid brings fintech from out in the wild to something more mainstream,” said Bain Capital Ventures’ Matt Harris. “It’s a ‘growing up’ moment for all of us,” he said, adding that the startup will now be part of the “critical infrastructure underlying the financial services industry.”

Plaid’s rapid ascent—Square Inc. looked at buying it in 2018 for just a fifth of the eventual selling price—comes as large companies look to expand their offerings, and contend with fast-growing digital competition. In November, PayPal Holdings Inc. snapped up online coupon company Honey Science Corp. for $4 billion. Charles Schwab Corp. acquired TD Ameritrade Holding Corp. for $26 billion. And Fiserv Inc., Fidelity National Information Services Inc. and Global Payments Inc. did a series of major deals in 2019 that remade the corporate landscape of payment processing.

Today there are nearly 60 financial technology startups valued at more than $1 billion, according to data from CB Insights, a research firm. Many are now acquisition targets, analysts say. Those include smaller players like SoftBank Group Corp.-backed unicorn Kabbage Inc., as well as giants like Stripe Inc., most recently valued at $35 billion, a price tag that makes it one of the world’s largest startups. Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. analyst Harshita Rawat, said in a note that Fiserv and PayPal could be potential bidders for Stripe.

Ryan Caldwell, chief executive officer of financial data company MX Technologies Inc., suggested the Visa deal could trigger a domino effect in the industry. “The space tends to heat up when there's been one acquisition,” Caldwell said, adding that larger companies were increasingly aware of fintech’s potential. “A lot of these players definitely need to partner,” he said.

Satya Patel, a partner at venture capital firm Homebrew, said he thought of Plaid’s purchase as “a sign of things to come,” but warned that future tie-ups may not represent a bonanza for fintech startup investors. “I think we’ll see more consolidation than multi-billion dollar exits,” Patel said.

While companies like Plaid and Stripe deal with the plumbing of fintech, acquirers may also seek out consumer-facing financial startups. In the consumer world, “a re-bundling of financial products is underway,” Patel said. Analysts have speculated that future potential acquisitions could involve some of the new payment plan and lending services, such as Affirm Inc., Afterpay and Klarna Bank AB.

“The alternative lending space feels ripe for consolidation,” said Lisa Ellis, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. These firms would make sense for “possibly PayPal or Square, since they have alternative lending businesses already and these would extend those, even banks like a Discover,’’ she said.

The rising crop of digital-first alternative banks, or “neo-banks,” saw big investment last year, and may also see an uptick in deals. Digital banking startups like Chime Inc., Revolut Ltd., N26 and Dave Inc. fall into this category. Because many of them have similar business models, experts believe the industry could be ripe for buyouts.

“The neo-bank space will probably consolidate at some point,’’ Ellis said. “Many firms are burning cash just trying to buy and acquire customers.” But that might not happen right away. Said Ellis: “The valuation bubble has to pop a bit for that group to be acquired.”

Bloomberg News