Why Capital One is buying Discover in the biggest merger yet of 2024

Capital One CEO and Chairman, Richard Fairbank.

Marvin Joseph| The Washington Post | Getty Images

Capital One’s recently announced $35.3 billion acquisition of Discover Financial isn’t just about getting bigger — gaining “scale” in Wall Street speak — it’s a bid to protect itself against a rising tide of fintech and regulatory threats.

It’s a chess move by one of the savviest long-term thinkers in American finance, Capital One CEO Richard Fairbank. As a co-founder of a top 10 U.S. bank by assets, his tenure is a rarity in a banking world dominated by institutions like JPMorgan Chase that trace their origins to shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

Fairbank, who became a billionaire by building Capital One into a credit card giant since its 1994 IPO, is betting that buying rival card company Discover will better position the company for global payments’ murky future. The industry is a dynamic web where players of all stripes — from traditional banks to fintech players and tech giants — are all seeking to stake out a corner in a market worth trillions of dollars by eating into incumbents’ share amid the rapid growth of e-commerce and digital payments.

“This deal gives the company a stronger hand to battle other banks, fintechs and big tech companies,” said Sanjay Sakhrani, the veteran KBW retail finance analyst. “The more that they can separate themselves from the pack, the more they can future-proof themselves.”

The deal, if approved, enables Capital One to leapfrog JPMorgan as the biggest credit card company by loans, and solidifies its position as the third largest by purchase volume. It also adds heft to Capital One’s banking operations with $109 billion in total deposits from Discover’s digital bank and helps the combined entity shave $1.5 billion in expenses by 2027.

‘Holy Grail’

Capital One and Discover credit cards arranged in Germantown, New York, US, on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024. 

Angus Mordant | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“That network is a very, very rare asset,” Fairbank said. “We have always had a belief that the holy grail is to be able to be an issuer with one’s own network so that one can deal directly with merchants.”

From the time of Capital One’s founding in the late 1980s, Fairbank said, he envisioned creating a global digital payments tech company by owning the payment rails and dealing directly with merchants. In the decades since, Capital One has been ahead of stodgier banks, gaining a reputation in tech circles for being forward thinking and for its early adoption of cloud computing and agile software development.

But its growth has relied on Visa and Mastercard, which accounted for the vast majority of payment volumes last year, processing nearly $10 trillion in the U.S. between them.

Capital One intends to boost the Discover network, which carried $550 billion in transactions last year, by quickly switching all of its debit transaction volume there, as well as a growing share of its credit card transactions over time.

By 2027, the bank expects to add at least $175 billion in payments and 25 million of its cardholders onto the Discover network.

Owning the toll road

The true potential of the Discover deal, though, is what it allows Capital One to do in the future if it owns the toll road, according to analysts.

By creating an end-to-end ecosystem that is more of a closed loop between shoppers and merchants, it could fend off competition from rapidly mutating fintech players like Block and PayPal, as well as buy now, pay later firms like Affirm and Klarna, who have made inroads with both businesses and consumers.

Capital One aims to deepen relationships with merchants by showing them how to boost sales, helping them prevent fraud and providing data insights, Fairbank said Tuesday, all of which makes them harder to dislodge. It can use some of the network fees to create new loyalty plans, like debit rewards programs, or underwrite merchant incentives or experiences, according to analysts.

“Owning a network allows us to deal more directly with merchants rather than a network intermediary,” Fairbank told analysts. “We create more value for merchants, small businesses and consumers and capture the additional economics from vertical integration.”

It’s a capability that technology or fintech companies probably covet. The Discover network alone would be worth up to $6 billion if sold to Alphabet, Apple or Fiserv, Sakhrani wrote Tuesday in a research note.

Will regulators approve?

The Capital One-Discovery combination could fortify the credit company against another potential threat — from Washington.

Proposed legislation from Sen. Dick Durbin aims to cap the fees charged by Visa and MasterCard, potentially blowing up the economics of credit card rewards programs. If that proposal becomes law, the competitive position of Discover’s network, which is exempt from the limitations, suddenly improves, according to Brian Graham, co-founder of advisory firm Klaros Group. That mirrors what an earlier law known as the Durbin amendment did for debit cards.

Chairman Dick Durbin (D-IL) speaks during a US Senate Judiciary Committee hearing regarding Supreme Court ethics reform, on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on May 2, 2023.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | Getty Images

“There are a bunch of things aimed, in one way or another, at the card networks and that ecosystem,” Graham said. “Those pressures might be one of the things that creates an opportunity for Capital One in the future if they have control over this network.”

The biggest question for Capital One, its customers and investors is whether the merger will ultimately be approved by regulators. While Fairbank said he expects the deal to be closed in late 2024 or early 2025, industry experts said it was impossible to know whether it will be blocked by regulators, like a string of high profile takeovers among banks, airlines and tech companies.

On Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren urged regulators to swiftly block the deal, calling it “dangerous.” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, said he would be watching the deal to “ensure that this merger doesn’t enrich shareholders and executives at the expense of consumers and small businesses.”

The Discover deal’s survival may hinge on whether it’s seen as boosting an also-ran payments network, or creating more concentration among an already-dominant card lender — another reason Fairbank may have played up the importance of the network.

“Which thing you are more concerned about will define whether you think this is a good deal or a bad deal from a public policy point of view,” Graham said.

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