Sign of the times: Americans increasingly opt for debit cards

Battered by surging unemployment and plunging home values, Americans are keeping their credits cards in their wallets and using debit cards instead, according to data released by Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA).

"Consumers clearly prefer debit," says Christopher Brendler, an analyst with Stifel Nicholaus in Baltimore who follows both companies. And credit's comeback could be a long way off. "It's going to be a while, and who knows if ever comes back," Brendler adds.

For Visa, debit purchases accounted for more than half the U.S. volume on its network (PDF), the world's largest, during the first three months of this year. That's the second quarter in a row that most of Visa's purchase volume has come from debit card transactions.

At MasterCard, debit purchases accounted for 40.6 percent of U.S. transactions (PDF), compared with 35.8 percent a year ago and 32.7 percent in 2007.

Brendler says the trend toward debit cards is a product of the recession. Overextended and anxious about the economy, consumers are borrowing less and paying down debt. And banks say they'll cope with new consumer protections for cardholders by issuing fewer cards and extending less credit.

Surely, credit is already crimped for many consumers. Federal Reserve data, released earlier this month, shows that credit card balances shrank for four straight months through May. But with unemployment rising, some economists think joblessness may force some to turn to plastic to stay afloat.

That would be bad news for highly leveraged U.S. consumers. But it'd be a boon for Visa and MasterCard. Both posted quarterly results that beat analysts' estimates. (Visa reported Wednesday night and MasterCard Thursday morning.) But while the companies said they processed more transactions last quarter, the dollar value of those transactions fell in a sign that consumers are spending less.

Perhaps more worrying: Growth in U.S. debit purchases, which has long outpaced credit card growth, is slowing at both companies. The American consumer is hurting, and that's slowing down Visa and MasterCard's domestic businesses.

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