Stocks are shaky, credit is tight, the economy may be tipping into a recession. Not the best time to be going to the markets for what could...

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NEW YORK — Stocks are shaky, credit is tight, the economy may be tipping into a recession. Not the best time to be going to the markets for what could be the largest initial public offering in U.S. history.

That’s the gamble Visa is taking as it gave details Monday about an IPO that could raise up to nearly $19 billion. If it works, it could be an encouraging sign to the stock markets and may even help loosen the credit knot.

While Visa’s IPO will have little direct effect on cardholders, the banks that issue the cards are expected to see a total windfall of more than $10 billion, which might keep them from pulling back credit lines further and pushing rates higher.

“That’s a good thing for the banks and a good thing for consumers. It might help ease the credit crisis a bit,” said Ben Woolsey, marketing director at the card-information Web site CreditCards.com.

Banks have suffered huge losses tied to defaults on subprime mortgages and are gearing up for more as consumer credit deteriorates.

JPMorgan Chase, which has a 23 percent stake in Visa, stands to gain the most. The more cash-strapped Citigroup and Bank of America are also Visa stockholders.

Visa said Monday in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it will offer 406 million shares at $37 to $42 each. It follows rival MasterCard in shifting from being a privately held interest to a publicly traded company.

If there is enough demand for Visa stock, underwriters will have the option to buy an extra 40.6 million shares.

The San Francisco company would not say exactly when it planned to float its shares, but IPO research firm Renaissance Capital, based in Greenwich, Conn., said it believes the offering will price March 19 to begin trading March 20.

Demand for IPOs has been incredibly weak recently, reflecting nervousness among investors about placing bets in untested waters.

Last year at this time, IPO returns were outperforming the broader stock market; now, they’re underperforming. The number of companies going public has dwindled to 18 so far this year from 34 at the same time in 2007, according to Renaissance Capital, which operates IPOhome.com.

A robust Visa IPO “could be the spark that is needed,” said Kathy Smith, a principal at Renaissance Capital. “It shows that there is a belief that investors want to put new capital to work in this company.”

Visa expects to see high demand for its stock despite the housing-led credit squeeze that is threatening consumers’ spending and their ability to keep up with debt payments.

Like MasterCard, Visa is a card processor, not a lender. It makes money through fees from banks issuing its cards and merchants accepting them.

And like MasterCard, Visa could see more struggling consumers increasingly use their cards for such high-cost necessities as health care, food and gasoline, which could boost the fees earns.

Delaying the IPO would “be like turning around a massive steamship and could raise speculation about what’s wrong,” Woolsey said. The company has been planning for an IPO this year since a filing with the SEC in June.

Visa’s IPO, even if it prices at the low end of the estimated range, would surpass the $10.6 billion AT&T Wireless raised in its 2000 IPO.

If demand is strong enough, it could be almost as big as the two largest past deals combined — AT&T’s offering and Kraft Foods’ $8.7 billion IPO in 2001.

At a midpoint price, Visa could raise about $15.6 billion, or more than $17 billion if underwriters exercise their option to buy the entire lot of 40.6 million shares.

Even at the low end price of $37 a share, Visa would raise about $15 billion.

Associated Press business reporter Michael Lee contributed to this article.