$6bn Mastercard float will test Wall Street's appetite

Mastercard, the credit card network under fire for its high fees, ends four decades as a private organisation with a flotation on the New York Stock Exchange today.

The $2.65bn (£1.42bn) share sale is Wall Street's biggest for two years, and comes on the heels of market debuts for the internet telephony pioneer Vonage yesterday and Burger King last week.

Bankers are watching Mastercard closely for signs that recent stock market weakness might snuff out the mini-boom in flotations. The company's advisers were meeting last night to price the shares, which could value the company at between $5.3bn and $5.8bn.

Mastercard was set up by a coalition of banks to process electronic payments, and 1,400 banks, many of the small regional players, will get a windfall from the flotation. The biggest members include HSBC, which looks set to pocket $100m. JP Morgan Chase, the biggest shareholder with 10.4 per cent, could net more than $200m.

The flotation is a defensive move, aimed at shielding Mastercard's members, whose shareholding will be reduced from 100 per cent to between 46 and 49 per cent, from a legal assault by retailers and regulatory pressure across the globe.

Shopkeepers say they are being ripped off and that Mastercard and its arch-rival Visa International act anti-competitively to charge high fees for processing credit and debit card payments. Mastercard faces 40 class action suits in the US as well as political calls for an anti-trust investigation into the company. Last year, the UK's Office of Fair Trading ruled against Mastercard, saying it had breached competition law and that its fees amounted to a tax on consumers.

Mastercard's flotation takes the total money raised through share offerings on Wall Street this year to $21bn, almost 60 per cent more than at this point last year. Companies have been attracted by the buoyant stock market conditions, while investors have warmed to the big-name brands on offer.

Burger King's flotation raised $425m for the hamburger chain's private equity owners last week, while Chipotle, the Mexican fast-food chain spun off by McDonald's in January, is the year's best performing new share, having tripled since flotation. Traders gave a decidedly poor reception, however, to the flotation of Vonage yesterday. It had raised $531m, valuing the company at $2.6n, but its shares were down 14 per cent at their worst.

The company has attracted 1.6 million subscribers to its phone service offering voice calls over the internet, but it spends as much on marketing as it gets in revenue, and investors fear it may never turn a profit. Cable companies have begun to embrace internet telephony and are fighting back with cheap deals combining television, internet and phone services. Vonage has also been undermined by Skype, owned by eBay, which offers internet calls for free.

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