Credit Cards: Safe Haven in the Storm?

Calyon Securities' Craig Maurer discusses opportunities in credit card stocks in the third installment of <I>'s</I> analyst Q&A series.
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The slumping housing market and lingering credit crunch have pummeled financial stocks over the past year to lows not seen in almost two decades. Last year, banks were feeling the pinch from writedowns related to securities backed by mortgages and unsold leveraged loans. This year banks are getting socked in the stomach as a consumer-led recession results in the rapid deterioration in credit beyond just residential mortgages -- creeping into other consumer and commercial-related loans, such as credit cards and residential construction loans.

As a broad swath of banks and consumer finance companies begin to report second-quarter earnings results next week, profits -- if any -- will continue to be weak. Banks will be busy continuing to add to their pile of loan loss reserves, marking down leftover leveraged loans and mortgage-backed securities, and shoring up capital wherever they can, likely in the form of dividend cuts.

This week,

asked several high-profile equity analysts about how the credit crisis is affecting banks and other consumer finance businesses. In this third installment, Craig Maurer, an equity research analyst covering specialty finance and payment processing companies at Calyon Securities, weighs in on the big credit card processing firms. As the housing/credit crisis morphs into a full-on economic slowdown, consumer spending is a big concern among Wall Street observers, economists and analysts. How will a slowdown in consumer spending affect the card companies?

Maurer: A continued economic slowdown's most pronounced impact on the card companies (the issuers not the networks) would come via two avenues: growing unemployment and tightening credit standards. The problems posed by unemployment on a cardholder's ability to repay his credit card debt should be self-explanatory. Tightening credit standards, which are a direct result of pressures both economic and structural, hurt a consumer's ability to refinance at more advantageous rates, diminishing their ability to keep up with payments. While not necessarily an impact directly related to the slowing economy, rising commodity prices will obviously impact the consumer's availability of free funds to pay down debt.

Many analysts are raising concerns about credit card loans as the next problem area. Since you cover several big credit card and processing firms, what trends are you seeing in that area? American Express (AXP) - Get Report recently said that business conditions are deteriorating faster than expected, why is that?

Clearly the credit card companies are showing accelerating loan losses, which seem to be a direct result of the factors mentioned

above. American Express recently made that statement because conditions are clearly worse than most lenders expected at this time, and management needed to warn investors that loan losses could look worse than what might already be built into models.

Much talk this year has centered on the relatively safe haven that MasterCard (MA) - Get Report and the newly public Visa (V) - Get Report have provided to investors throughout the credit crisis. Why is that?

We agree with the "safe haven" comments regarding Visa and MasterCard. One misconception regarding these names is that they're "credit card companies." These are not credit card companies, in that they don't issue cards, maintain consumer relationships or make loans. They are purely payment networks -- basically tech companies. Their only significant mission in life is to provide the electronic pipeline for a payment to travel between the merchant point of sale and the issuing bank. Therefore, MasterCard and Visa are in the ideal position to take advantage of the secular shift from paper to electronic forms of payment, which continues unabated despite U.S. economic weakness. Basically, the more times a consumer uses a card for a payment, the more money these companies earn. Additionally, while U.S.-based companies, Visa and MasterCard, are global in every sense of the word, and while the U.S. remains their largest market, they both have achieved significant global diversification.

But still, MasterCard and Visa are not completely immune to a downward economic cycle. Why is that?

No, they're not completely immune to an economic downturn, as a slowdown in spending could be enough to overwhelm the move from paper to electronic forms of payment and drive down growth rates. We have built in a modestly slower U.S. growth rate for 2008 and 2009 for both companies, though there is no evidence that the domestic slowdown is impacting other rapidly growing geographies around the world, such as Asia and Latin America.

American Express just announced the final settlement of its ongoing antitrust lawsuit against Visa and MasterCard, which it alleged were monopolizing the bank-issued credit card market. Discover Financial Services (DFS) - Get Report is due in court this fall for its showdown. Should Discover expect to see the same windfall as AmEx?

We do not believe Discover could earn the same level of compensation as American Express did. Since the bank system was opened up to American Express and Discover in 2004, many banks have signed on to issue American Express cards, as these cards offer better economics per transaction than the average Visa or MasterCard. Discover has not seen similar success in the bank issuing market, as economics on Discover transactions do not measure up, even to the traditional association cards. Therefore, we believe a court could deduce that demand just wasn't there for Discover cards, and that exclusion likely did not have the same impact as it did on American Express' business.

The one saving point we could see Discover arguing is that the Discover card could have been a more "general purpose" card than American Express, which clearly fills a high-end niche, and that the exclusionary tactics forced the company to lower its economics to compete for merchant acceptance.

Which is your top pick in the sector and why?

MasterCard. It's trading at a 7 multiple discount to Visa, the overhang of the AmEx litigation is behind them, they carry no credit risk, half of their business is outside the U.S. and we're expecting more than 30% earnings growth next year.