By now you likely know Berkshire Hathaway made a $1 billion bet on Apple in the first quarter. But that wasn't the only move Warren Buffett -- or more likely, one of his protégés, Ted Weschler or Todd Combs -- made. Berkshire increased its stake in Visa (V) - Get Visa Inc. Class A Report .
The move was relatively small, just a 3% increase in Berkshire's existing stake, but it casts a spotlight on the payments space, where investors are poised to enjoy strong long-term gains as consumers continue to switch from cash and checks to credit cards, debit cards and mobile payments.
Leading the cashless race is Sweden, where paper and coins accounted for just 20% of all consumer payments in 2015, according to Euromonitor International numbers cited by The New York Times. But don't get too hung up on that figure. In the rest of the world, 75% of all transactions are still made using paper money, according to Euromonitor International, so the shift has plenty of room to run yet.
That's great news for San Francisco-based Visa, which operates the world's largest payment network, spread out over 200 countries and capable of handling more than 56,000 transaction messages per second.
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The company accounted for more than 47% of all credit card purchases in 2015, according to CardHub, eclipsing competitors American Express and MasterCard at 25.4% and 23%, respectively. Visa cardholders also spend more per month than any other card company's clients except AMEX.
What many people don't realize about Visa (and MasterCard, for that matter) is that it simply charges merchants fees to use its network and doesn't issue cards or take on any credit risk. That's a key difference from American Express, which functions more like a bank.
One country Visa is eyeing is China, which announced in April that it would open up its bank card-clearing market to foreign competition. The move could clear the way for the company to gain a toehold in the world's most populous country, where the number of upper middle class and affluent households is expected to double by 2020.
China has been cagey about the details, including how much of the market it's willing to open up, but this could be a massive opportunity for Visa: According to the Nilson Report, cards from China UnionPay, the only firm currently providing clearing services for yuan-denominated transactions, represented $38 of every $100 in global purchase volume in 2014, Bloomberg reported.
That's the long-term story. In the near term, Visa's partnership with Citigroup, under which the bank will become the exclusive issuer of co-branded Costco Wholesale credit cards, comes into effect in June.
That deal comes at a good time: In April, U.S. consumer spending rose 1.3%, defying expectations of a 0.8% increase after slipping 0.3% in March.
Another oft-overlooked aspect of Visa is the company's superlative capital-return program: Even though the shares have a dividend yield of just 0.7%, Visa has increased its payout by 278% in the last five years.
It's also been active on the buyback front, repurchasing 24.2 million shares at an average price of $72.23 in the first quarter, below the stock's average price of $77.01. It has $4.0 billion remaining on its current buyback program.
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Meantime, Visa's shares have a price-to-earnings ratio of 28, based on estimates of the company's earnings for 2016. That's higher than the industry's forward P/E of 22.8, but it's not unwarranted given Visa's strong brand, dominant market share and growth potential. Analysts have an average 12-month price target on the stock of $88.00, suggesting 15% upside from recent levels around $76.56.
So pick up some Visa shares today, and profit alongside Mr. Buffett as the cashless trend picks up steam.
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.