What Is MasterCard?

MasterCard is the second-largest payment network, ranked behind Visa, in the global payments industry. Other major payment networks include American Express and Discover. MasterCard partners with member financial institutions all over the world to offer MasterCard branded network payment cards.

Mastercard uses its proprietary global payments network, which they refer to as their core network, to facilitate payment transactions, which usually involves the Mastercard account holder and a merchant along with their respective financial institutions. Payments can be made via credit, debit, or prepaid cards.

Key Takeaways

  • MasterCard is a payment network processor.
  • MasterCard partners with financial institutions that issue MasterCard payment cards that are processed exclusively on the MasterCard network.
  • MasterCard’s primary source of revenue comes from the fees it charges issuers based on each card’s gross dollar volume.

MasterCard Explained

MasterCard itself is a financial services business that primarily generates revenue from gross dollar volume (GDV) fees. MasterCard cards are issued by member banks with the MasterCard logo. Open-loop cards that are accepted anywhere often carry the MasterCard logo to help identify their eligibility for use.

Across the payments industry, there are four major payment card processors. These four card processors are MasterCard, Visa, American Express, and Discover. Each company operates a payments network and partners with a variety of institutions for card offerings.

All electronic payment cards have cardholder numbers that begin with an issuer identification number (IIN) distinguishing the network processor for electronic payments. The IIN can help to identify the card brand if a logo is not visible.

The MasterCard Business

In 2019, MasterCard reported $6.5 trillion worth of gross dollar volume, which shows the amount of money comprehensively transacted on all of its card offerings. The company partners with a variety of institutions to offer several types of cards. Comprehensively, its card offerings span across credit, debit, and prepaid cards. The majority of Mastercard’s business is through partnerships with financial institutions and their organizational co-brand partners to offer open-loop credit card options.

MasterCard does not have a banking division, as discussed in its 2019 10-K filing:

We do not issue cards, extend credit, determine or receive revenue from interest rates or other fees charged to account holders by issuers, or establish the rates charged by acquirers in connection with merchants’ acceptance of our products.

Branded and Co-Branded Cards Through Financial Institutions

Mastercard partners with member financial institutions that in turn issue Mastercard-branded cards to consumers, students and small businesses. Member financial institutions often partner with organizations in co-branded relationships to issue Mastercard-branded rewards cards to their customer bases. These organizations can include airlines, hotels and retailers

When MasterCard partners with a financial institution, the institution serves as the issuer. That institution determines the terms and benefits a cardholder can receive on their card. A financial institution may choose to partner for the issuance of a credit card, debit card, or prepaid card.

To attract different types of consumers, financial institutions offer numerous features on Mastercard-branded cards. Some popular credit card features may include no annual fee, issuer-branded or custom organization-branded rewards points, cash back, as well as 0% introductory rates.

Credit, debit and prepaid Mastercards cards issued through partner issuers are characterized as open loop. This means the card can be used anywhere the MasterCard brand is accepted. The financial institution is primarily responsible for all of the underwriting and issuance of the card.

MasterCard Network Processing and Fees

Cards within the MasterCard network have different relationship maps depending on the type of card offered and the agreements in place. Regardless, MasterCard charges fees for usage of each MasterCard.

Typically, cardholders, merchants, acquiring banks, issuers, and MasterCard as the network processor are the five entities involved in a transaction. Fees can vary depending on card and merchant agreements.

As a network processing service provider, MasterCard is responsible for the processing of a transaction. MasterCard may charge the issuer of a MasterCard a switching fee at the time of a card authorization, but generally, most fees involved with the transaction process are known as interchange fees and negotiated between the issuer and acquirer.

Merchant Discounts and Issuers

In order to accept MasterCard electronic payments, a merchant must have their own (acquiring) bank that is capable of receiving electronic payments on the MasterCard network. When a cardholder uses their MasterCard, the funds are routed from the cardholder’s (MasterCard issuing) bank to the merchant’s bank account. The merchant pays the issuer a fee on each transaction, known as the merchant discount.

For MasterCard, the majority of the company’s revenue is generated from transaction fees charged to issuers and acquirers, which pay MasterCard based on Gross Dollar Volume. The GDV fee is a percentage of the total GDV. Issuers may also be required to pay MasterCard a fee based on the co-branded card agreement. Each co-branded card agreement has different terms for fees, but in general, the GDV fee is a basic standard. MasterCard may also charge the issuer a switching fee for each card authorization, which can be a factor in determining the issuer’s interchange fee for the merchant.