As COVID-19 shut down much of the global economy, Visa has had a front-row seat. While known for its label on various credit and debit cards, Visa is one of the largest financial services companies in the world and processes millions of transactions each day.
Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Visa CEO Al Kelly about the last several months in the economy as well as Visa’s newly announced scholarship program aimed at helping Black high-schoolers eventually find jobs at Visa. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: As a guy who runs a company which is intimately involved in most of the transactions that happen out there — a good share of them, anyway — what are you seeing?
Al Kelly: Well, Kai, since mid-March, the world has changed dramatically. We probably have had a three- to five-year acceleration of e-commerce in the last 10 weeks caused by COVID. We’ve seen debit card volume increase much more than credit card volume. This is not unusual, Kai, in economic downturn situations, where people want to be very careful of extending themselves, and so they will tend to use a debit card and a credit card where they’ll have to pay down their balance over time.
Ryssdal: So that all makes sense. And those are interesting trends. I guess my follow-up question is, acknowledging that we’re not in charge, as Dr. Fauci says, the virus is in charge, how worried are you?
Kelly: Well, every medical expert I’ve talked to, Kai, has very different opinions on the coronavirus or COVID-19 in general, but there seems to be quite a consistent view that a resurgence of the virus is indeed possible. And so I am concerned that we are starting to see, perhaps, a little bit too much of a casual attitude toward the coronavirus. We ourselves at Visa hadn’t had a COVID case in a couple of months, and last week had about a half-dozen, and we have 97% of our employees working from home. So I am concerned that we need to stay vigilant as a society, as a global society, to make sure that we allow the economies to remain open. I do think that if this ever got to the point where we are overwhelming medical facilities and we had to shut things down again, it would be quite devastating.
Ryssdal: Visa is doing a lot of work with small businesses. You’re out there trying to get contactless payment things going and working on making things easier for them. And as we know, small businesses have been hit arguably hardest in this pandemic. Do you think we need more stimulus from the government for small businesses in this economy?
Kelly: Well, I think it certainly can’t hurt, and a lot of the early stimulus in the U.S. was tied to payrolls. And unfortunately, small businesses just couldn’t make the commitment to keep people on their payroll. It was just too large an expense. And I think a lot of small businesses really need help with things like rent, and their expenses related to running any kind of business, such as insurance types of expenses. My view is that if we can keep more small businesses up and running, they will employ people as they always have and it will become an outcome which will be very, very important.
Ryssdal: Let me turn now to a much more serious matter, actually, and it’s obviously Black Lives Matter and what’s going on with race in this economy. You have announced Visa has a new scholarship program for Black students coming out of college. You have started to publish data about your workforce diversity. I want to ask you the bigger-picture question, though. And granted, you’re speaking for one company, but it’s a big company. What do you think corporate America’s responsibility is in this moment?
Kelly: Well, I think corporations are very, very important in general and that we certainly need to be cognizant of the fact that we can’t fix every problem in the world, but on certain issues, we can and should be certainly doing our part and ideally playing a leadership role. Black lives do matter, Kai. And we happen to believe that one of the great levers is education. That’s why we announced the Visa Scholars Program. It’s actually Black students as they’re in their junior and senior years of high school and helping them throughout college with not only some scholarship money, but ideally, other programmatic things outside of the classroom. And in a partnership with them, if they do their job, they will have a guaranteed job at Visa. And so I’m extremely excited about being able to do something that I believe is strategic and sustaining and forward-leaning. Yes, we could write checks to different organizations, and we certainly are matching gifts on all of our employees back to double-matching them, but I recognize that we need to do more. We’ve been on the case, we’re redoubling, retripling our efforts because the suppression that has existed for 400 years must come to an end.
Correction (July 1, 2020): A previous version of this story incorrectly described Visa. Visa is a global payments technology company.
COVID-19 Economy FAQs
Pfizer said early data show its coronavirus vaccine is effective. So what’s next?
In the last few months, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech have shared other details of the process including trial blueprints, the breakdown of the subjects and ethnicities and whether they’re taking money from the government. They’re being especially transparent in order to try to temper public skepticism about this vaccine process. The next big test, said Jennifer Miller at the Yale School of Medicine, comes when drug companies release their data, “so that other scientists who the public trust can go in, replicate findings, and communicate them to the public. And hopefully build appropriate trust in a vaccine.”
How is President-elect Joe Biden planning to address the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic turmoil it’s created?
On Nov. 9, President-Elect Joe Biden announced three co-chairs of his new COVID-19 task force. But what kind of effect might this task force have during this transition time, before Biden takes office? “The transition team can do a lot to amplify and reinforce the messages of scientists and public health experts,” said Dr. Kelly Moore, associate director for the Immunization Action Coalition. Moore said Biden’s COVID task force can also “start talking to state leaders and other experts about exactly what they need to equip them to roll out the vaccines effectively.”
What does slower retail sales growth in October mean for the economy?
It is a truism that we repeat time and again at Marketplace: As goes the U.S. consumer, so goes the U.S. economy. And recently, we’ve been seeing plenty of signs of weakness in the consumer economy. Retail sales were up three-tenths of a percent in October, but the gain was weaker than expected and much weaker than September’s. John Leer, an economist at Morning Consult, said a lack of new fiscal stimulus from Congress is dampening consumers’ appetite to spend. So is the pandemic.
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