) --

Capital One

(COF) - Get Report

's sale of a private label credit card portfolio to


(C) - Get Report

underscores the company's difficulty in crafting a revenue growth strategy.

Capital One on Tuesday announced a deal to sell its $7 billion portfolio of

Best Buy

(BBY) - Get Report

private label credit card accounts to Citi, for undisclosed terms. However, the company also said it expected that "proceeds from the sale will approximate the book value of the accounts, resulting in no significant gain or loss on the transaction." The deal is expected to be completed during the third quarter.

Investors were not amused, sending Capital One's shares down 2% on Tuesday, while Citigroup's shares rose 1.5%.

One reason for investor irritation with Capital One is that the company effectively paid a premium of $2.6 billion last May to acquire roughly $30 billion in credit card loans from HSBC, which included the Best Buy portfolio. Another problem for investors is that the sale of the Best Buy portfolio followed a

disappointing fourth-quarter for Capital One

. Making matters worse, the company reported on Friday that its

U.S. credit card portfolio balances declined by 3%

in January.

When asked for comment for this article, a Capital One spokesperson pointed to comments from EVP for Card Partnerships Bill Cilluffo, included in the company's press release on Tuesday.

"We have a proven, scale partnerships infrastructure and a great portfolio of partners," Cilluffo said, adding that "our partnerships business continues to deliver strong contributions to our results and serves as a platform for future growth potential."

When discussing the company's private-label aspirations at a conference on Feb. 13, Capital One CEO Richard Fairbank said that "with the HSBC acquisition, we have a scale platform and we really have a real position in the space," and that the company was "going out and really looking to see if we can get new partnerships." He also hinted at the Best Buy portfolio sale announced just six days later.

"The key to success in this business is selectivity," Fairbank said. He added that the "three dimensions" that Capital One looks for in a credit card partner are the financial strength of the partner, the partner's desire to "truly build a franchise" using the card partnership, and "the nature of the contract."

"The sale of the Best Buy portfolio is a reversal of Cap One's efforts to build in private label, as it represents roughly half of the private label card portfolio acquired from HSBC," according to a report from Credit Suisse analyst Moshe Orenbuch published Tuesday. The report added that "this sale will further challenge COF in generating significant earnings growth and compounds the sustained weakness in card demand recently noted by management."

Downgrading Capital One

Capital One was downgraded to a "neutral" rating from a "buy" rating on Wednesday, by Guggenheim analyst David Darst.

Darst lowered his price target for Capital One's shares to $59.00 from $66.00, while lowering his 2013 earnings estimate to $6.40 a share from $6.55. The analyst also lowered his 2014 EPS estimate to $6.85 from $7.20.

In his report, Darst wrote that "recent results and a now greater decline in loans and earnings for 2013 suggest there are fewer levers for EPS growth and value creation. As a result, we believe the shares will trade for a discount relative to peers with fewer catalysts to support earnings multiple expansion."

Darst also said that Capital One's shares could benefit from "increased dividends in 2013 and share repurchases in 2014 from capital growth this year," but also said he expected the shares to continue trading for roughly nine times forward earnings estimates "until a more favorable growth outlook returns."

Sticking with Positive Ratings

KBW analyst Sanjay Sakhrani late on Tuesday reiterated his "outperform" rating for Capital One, with a price target of $65.00, saying in a report that "while this announcement is certainly not an optimal scenario, we feel this is more than discounted into the shares."

Sakhrani estimated that the sale of the Best Buy portfolio "could create an EPS drag of about $0.15-$0.25/share" in 2014. However, "on the positive side for future (potential) capital return, we estimate the sale could also benefit COF's capital ratios by about 30-40 bps on a Basel I basis," he wrote.

Citigroup analyst Donald Fandetti stood by his "buy" rating for Capital One, with a $67.00 price target, and said in the company's defense in a report on Wednesday that "we believe most of the premium they paid for the HSBC portfolio was for the general purpose cards, not the private label platform."

"We believe COF and Best Buy had a choppy relationship from the beginning and their contract was due to expire in 2014, so this just accelerates the process," Fandetti wrote. The analyst also said that the sale "could also indicate that COF, as a new entrant to the private label business, is struggling."

Regarding the effect of the sale on Capital One's financial results, Fandetti wrote that "the key issue is the earnings impact in 2014. COF will either 1) replace these assets with more private label cards or 2) their appetite for capital return would increase meaning they would likely buy-back more stock in 2014." The analyst estimates that Capital One will earn $6.45 a share this year, with EPS increasing to $6.83 in 2014.

Shares are Cheap

Capital One's shares closed at $53.12 Tuesday, down 9% year-to-date, following last year's 36% return. The shares trade for 1.2 times tangible book value, according to Thomson Reuters Bank Insight, and for 7.8 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $6.80, among analysts polled by Thomson Reuters. The consensus 2013 EPS estimate is $6.45.

That forward price-to-earnings ratio is quite low in the current environment, and is even lower than the ratios for the "big four" U.S. banks, which have far more moving parts and regulatory targets on their backs:

  • Shares of Citigroup closed at $44.50 Tuesday, trading for 8.6 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $5.20.
  • Bank of America (BAC) - Get Report closed at $12.19 Tuesday, trading for 9.5 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $1.29.
  • Shares of JPMorgan Chase (JPM) - Get Report closed at $49.45 Tuesday, trading for 8.6 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $5.77.
  • Wells Fargo (WFC) - Get Report closed at $35.10 Tuesday, trading for 9.0 times the consensus 2014 EPS estimate of $3.89.

Good for Citi

Guggenheim analyst Marty Mosby on Wednesday reiterated his "buy" rating for Citigroup, with a $57.00 price target, saying in a note that the Best Buy portfolio purchase "could be accretive to C's current earnings power by as much as 2%."

KBW analyst Fred Cannon late on Tuesday reiterated his "outperform" rating for Citigroup with a price target of $55.00, saying in a note that "this transaction would be $0.05/share accretive to our 2014 EPS estimate of $5.25, all else equal.

"We view this as a positive for C since it shows the company is investing in the North America cards business which is likely one of the highest returning businesses for the company," Cannon wrote. The analyst also said that "this deal should also help the company begin the process of slowly reversing the declining market share that the company had faced over the last several years."

-- Written by Philip van Doorn in Jupiter, Fla.

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Philip W. van Doorn is a member of TheStreet's banking and finance team, commenting on industry and regulatory trends. He previously served as the senior analyst for Ratings, responsible for assigning financial strength ratings to banks and savings and loan institutions. Mr. van Doorn previously served as a loan operations officer at Riverside National Bank in Fort Pierce, Fla., and as a credit analyst at the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, where he monitored banks in New York, New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Mr. van Doorn has additional experience in the mutual fund and computer software industries. He holds a bachelor of science in business administration from Long Island University.