Visa raised $17.9 billion late Tuesday to complete the largest initial public offering (IPO) in U.S. history and help prop up the wobbly...

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SAN FRANCISCO — Visa raised $17.9 billion late Tuesday to complete the largest initial public offering (IPO) in U.S. history and help prop up the wobbly financial-services industry.

The world’s largest processor of credit and debit cards sold 406 million shares at $44 apiece to easily eclipse the previous record IPO of $10.6 billion set by AT&T Wireless eight years ago.

The IPO price topped the range of $37 to $42 a share Visa set three weeks ago before its executives began meeting with institutional investors and analysts to drum up interest.

If investment bankers exercise an option on another 40.6 million shares, Visa’s IPO will end up raising $19.7 billion before expenses.

Visa shares, trading on under the “V” ticker symbol, are to begin trading today on the New York Stock Exchange.

The company will debut with a market value of about $36 billion.

More than $10 billion of the IPO proceeds are being used to buy back some of the shares owned by the banks that have helped build Visa during the past 50 years.

JPMorgan Chase, Visa’s biggest customer and shareholder, is in line for the biggest payoff — about $1.25 billion, based on figures provided in Securities and Exchange Commission documents.

Other big winners in Visa’s IPO include: Bank of America, expected to receive roughly $625 million; National City, about $435 million; Citigroup, about $300 million; and U.S. Bancorp and Wells Fargo, both getting more than $270 million.

All the banks will remain major Visa shareholders.

The IPO also is expected to generate more than $500 million in fees for Visa’s team of investment bankers, led by JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs.

With loan problems battering the banking industry, Visa executives sold the IPO by positioning their company as a safe haven — a message that apparently resonated with investors.

“In times like this, you generally see a flight to quality,” said Joel Greenberg, a New York attorney who has advised on other IPOs.

Unlike lenders who have issued nearly 1.5 billion cards bearing its brand, Visa doesn’t carry any consumer debt on its books.

The company makes its money from processing fees, which have been steadily rising for years, including the past two U.S. recessions in 1991 and 2001.

And Visa conceivably could benefit from tougher times if more cash-strapped consumers rely on their credit cards to make ends meet.