Global travel stalled during the pandemic, hurting the bottom line for credit card companies.
American Express, Mastercard, and Visa posted double-digit year-over-year earnings declines in the last quarter. Companies pointed to a slump in international travel as borders remain closed during the pandemic.
Companies earn a fee for every transaction that takes place on their network, while American Express also earns a significant portion of its revenue with annual fees. A lack of cross-border payments is especially painful as these card readers have higher margins and end up being more lucrative.
Visa was the youngest major card company to report results on Wednesday. Cross-border transactions were down 29% while Visa's revenue was down 17% year over year for the quarter. The company did not provide guidance based on the uncertainty surrounding the virus, but said the cross-border weakness continues to be a "significant and ongoing drag on sales growth." According to Vasant Prabhu, CFO of Visa, this is expected to continue until 2021.
"The cross-border recovery has been sluggish as borders remain closed and there are significant barriers to crossing borders such as quarantines and other such restrictions," Prabhu said on a call with analysts on Wednesday.
Prabhu cited "significant uncertainties" including the impact of spikes in Covid infections in the US and Europe, the timing of borders reopening, the impact of therapeutics and vaccines, additional stimulus packages, and the economic impact after the stimulus packages end. Covid cases in Europe have led the leaders of Germany and France to announce new economic restrictions for the next month, while new cases in the US have hit record highs in recent weeks.
Visa rival Mastercard reported wins on many of the same subjects on Wednesday. Mastercard's net income declined 28% year over year and net sales declined 14%, in line with analysts' expectations. The company reported a 36% decrease in cross-border volume and did not forecast an imminent recovery in travel expenses.
"While we believe that cross-border activity will eventually recover, it will take time for people to gain confidence in the safety of travel," said Sachin Mehra, Mastercard's chief financial officer, on a call with analysts on Wednesday . "We believe this is related to the wide availability of vaccines and therapeutics, likely towards the end of next year."
Mastercard stocks were the worst performers over the past week, down 11% this week. Visa and American Express are down 8% and 10% respectively this week.
Amex started card revenue on Friday with a 40% drop in profits year over year. Travel and entertainment expenses decreased 69% year over year. While the company is "very confident" that demand for travel will return, "it will take a while," American Express CFO Jeffrey Campbell told CNBC in a telephone interview.
"The human urge to travel is insatiable, but it will be some time before we get back, just as it was after 9/11," said Campbell, who is also a former CFO for American Airlines. "In order for our business to be back to pre-pandemic levels, consumers need to return. We are very confident and in the meantime we are trying to take the right steps to rebuild growth and momentum."
According to Campbell, it "could be years before business travel comes back".
Despite the travel-related slump, there were some bright spots for companies. Mastercard CEO Ajay Banga noted an improvement in domestic travel for the quarter, including spending on accommodation and sports. The card companies pointed to a rebound in domestic spending and a surge in e-commerce, which helped offset losses elsewhere. Payment volume for Visa increased 4%, while gross dollar volume, the dollar value of transactions processed, increased 1% for Mastercard.