Skip to main content

(Veteran tech columnist Jon Markman publishes Strategic Advantage, a guide to investing in the digital transformation of business and society. Click here for a free trial.)

The holiday shopping season is in the books and analysts are buzzing about what it all means. Spoiler alert: the same trends that have been dominant for a decade will persist, as online spending is still booming and shows no sign of reversal.

To take advantage, investors should buy credit card transaction processors.

It’s not a huge surprise that consumers are retreating to the comfort of their smartphones for entertainment and shopping. The pandemic kept most of us housebound, seeking safety. And when stores did open, we kept on clicking and swiping to buy goods and services.

Businesses made it easier to buy the stuff we needed. User interfaces improved. The biggest improvements came at Target ( (TGT) - Get Target Corporation Report), Walmart ( (WMT) - Get Walmart Inc. Report) and Home Depot ( (HD) - Get Home Depot, Inc. Report) as project managers accelerated digital transformation initiatives. Even restaurant chains like Chipotle ( (CMG) - Get Chipotle Mexican Grill, Inc. Report) and McDonalds ( (MCD) - Get McDonald's Corporation Report) got into the act. It was full speed ahead, petal to the metal to push ecommerce further into the mainstream.

Ecommerce has been on the rise for a decade but it’s now accelerating. When most consumers think of online shopping ( (AMZN) - Get, Inc. Report) is the first focus. And the Seattle, Wash.-based giant continued to perform well in 2020.

Analytics firm eMarketer found that sales at rose 39% to record levels during the holidays. The gains were a testament to its investment in distribution centers and logistics. Even as orders swelled, the firm continued to get packages to customers on time.

Meanwhile data from Sensor Tower, an analytics firm that tracks smartphone application sales, showed consumers retreating to their devices like never before. Worldwide app spending during the holidays reached a record level, up 35% year over year.

The majority of the spending was devoted to inexpensive mobile games. Honor of Kings, a title from China’s Tencent Holdings that costs 99 cents, raked in sales +205% from a year ago.

It’s easy for investors to get caught up in the minutia, or simply default to the wins again narrative. Sure, Amazon is winning but that’s not the big takeaway from record ecommerce and app store sales.

Digital payment processors are winning. Social distancing is killing cash.

Mastercard ( (MA) - Get Mastercard Incorporated Class A Report) and Visa ( (V) - Get Visa Inc. Class A Report) have business models entirely devoted to killing cash. Their product managers want consumers to pay for everything with either their branded debit or credit cards. And they love online shopping because they get a cut of all of those sales.

The power of these businesses cannot be overstated. They are making a fortune because they are pure transaction processors. They have no credit risk thanks to arrangements with banks, the card issuers. Missed payments and defaults are relevant to Mastercard and Visa only in the sense that these hiccups slow overall consumer spending. However, even that doesn’t change the fundamentals of the business model.

Mastercard released a presentation in October with its third quarter financial report. The New York-based firm logged $2.1 billion in operating profits on only $3.8 billion in sales. That’s a 54.9% gross margin … during a pandemic. Profits were $1.6 billion.

Imagine a world without cash. That’s the future Mastercard managers are pushing. The company, along with Visa and to a lesser extent American Express ( (AXP) - Get American Express Company Report), will get a small cut of every transaction, regardless how small, when consumers tap, swipe checkout their virtual shopping carts.

When consumers buy games on their iPhones, Mastercard gets a cut. The same is true for purchases at, Target, Walmart and Chipotle. The business is a gold mine.

Investors have noticed. Mastercard shares have risen an average of 31.7% for the past 10 years. Doing the quick math, a $5,000 investment made 10 years ago would be worth $114,239 today.

Based on operating margins alone I believe the stock can reach $470 within 12 months. At a current price of $355.70 that is a 32% gain – maybe enough for you to pay off your holiday gifts bill.