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Credit card stocks: Plastic fantastic

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Buy now, pay later – who can argue with that? Our little plastic (now also digital) friends have been with us for over 70 years, giving us the ability to get things we might've not been able to afford otherwise - all the while, keeping in mind the hefty fees that stack up if we don't pay the bill in time. Credit cards are now such an integral part of life (over 200m American adults own one), that it's hard to imagine leaving home without one. But are they a wise investment?

Here are the major players in the US credit industry – public companies that provide a credit card network. These do not include card issuers such as banks or financial institutions that just distribute Visas or Mastercards to their customers. Remember, always do your own background checks before you commit to any trade.

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V

There’s hardly any place unconquered by credit card network Visa. How is this payments juggernaut doing it? Interchange rate – that’s all you need to know about Visa’s business model. Visa is entirely reliant on that rate, known as swipe, to keep its gig going. Merchants paid $105bn in swipe when shoppers dished out about $5tn in purchases in 2021. And because Visa, together with Mastercard, handles more than 70% of all US-based credit card transactions, it can up the ante. Visa ranks first among all S&P 500 companies with the highest margin – up to a hefty 65% operating margin. Annual net income arrived at $12bn on $24bn net revenue.

MA

A runner-up or an ally? Payments processor Mastercard is the one to complement Visa’s dominance over the global credit card network. Riding on a roughly $350bn market cap, the company is trading close to record highs, despite the broader market’s sharp decline in 2022. The firm’s financials have been buoyed by all of us swiping those plastics. Because a good 2% to 3% of the charge goes to the issuer, Mastercard racked up a solid $8.6bn in 2021 on earnings of $18.8bn. Mastercard, and its big bro Visa, have been taking heat for suffocating smaller challengers in the payments world as these two legacy operators act as gatekeepers to the space.

AXP

Credit card group American Express, or AmEx for short, did its best to emerge from the post-pandemic hangover as the new reality threw the market into a tantrum. To somehow cushion the effects of fast-paced rate hikes in 2022, AmEx turned defensive by setting aside more money for bad loans than Wall Street expected. As much as $778m were stuffed into provisions for credit losses by Sept. 30, 2022. Besides spooking investors, AmEx also sent a warning that it’s not really trusting borrowers to pay back their loans. Still, shares have been performing well, with their price hugging the flatline compared to a year ago. Not too shabby.

DFS

Discover Financial is a card group founded in 1985 with the mission to create payment solutions that connect people to commerce. After several rebranding campaigns and ownership changes, Discover got spun off from investment bank Morgan Stanley in 2006 to start living the life of a publicly traded independent company. Today, Discover is not exactly a notable rival to the big-league players such as Visa and Mastercard – it handles about 2% of the card transactions taking place in the US. Share price has been rather stable, hovering slightly in the red over the past year but up more than triple since the covid bottom of March 2020.