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American Express Company (AXP), Visa Inc (V), Mastercard Inc (MA): Are the Credit Card Stocks Overvalued?

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The credit card services industry in the United States contains three stocks for investors to choose from. Each has demonstrated solid growth in recent quarters, showing the benefits of a steady global economic recovery and a more confident consumer.

It’s understandable that these stocks would rally. They have the tailwinds of well-run businesses and a recovering consumer. As consumers pay down debt, get back into the workforce and begin to feel better about their personal finances, they’ll spend more. This means more volumes and traffic for each of these companies, and in turn, higher sales and profits.

At this point, though, some of these stocks appear to be trading ahead of themselves, with lofty valuations that likely shake the nerves of value-conscious investors. Is there still value to be had among the credit card companies?

The major industry players

American Express Company (NYSE:AXP)

American Express Company (NYSE:AXP) reported first-quarter revenue and diluted earnings per share growth of 3% and 7.5%, respectively, year over year.

This followed a decent full-year 2012, in which the company grew revenues net of interest expense by 5% and earnings per share by 7.6% as compared to full-year 2011.

Moreover, the company recently raised its dividend by 15%, which dividend enthusiasts likely appreciate.

The high-growers in the space are competitors Visa Inc (NYSE:V) and Mastercard Inc (NYSE:MA). Visa Inc (NYSE:V) has had an incredible run since its initial public offering in 2008. At the time, the IPO was the largest ever, at a record $17.9 billion. Shares began trading at $44 per share. Since then, Visa Inc (NYSE:V) has quadrupled in price.

Operating performance has been equally impressive, with operating revenue increasing at a compound annual rate of 13.5% since 2008. Full-year diluted earnings per share, meanwhile, have increased 34% per year over the same time period.

Visa Inc (NYSE:V) has continued this trend to begin 2013. The company reported fiscal second-quarter net revenue and net income per share growth of 15% and 20%, respectively. Moreover, the company remains committed to buying back its own shares, thereby enhancing shareholder value in the future. During the second quarter, Visa Inc (NYSE:V) repurchased 12 million of its own shares, with $1 billion remaining in its current share buyback authorization.

Mastercard Inc (NYSE:MA) has performed strongly as well recently. The company’s shares have doubled over the last two years. Mastercard Inc (NYSE:MA) reported positive results for its fiscal fourth-quarter, with revenues rising 10%. Earnings per share clocked in at $4.86, beating analyst expectations by five cents.

Mastercard Inc (NYSE:MA) followed this with strong performance in the first quarter of the current fiscal year. Net revenue and diluted earnings per share increased 8% and 16%, respectively, and the company’s future outlook is encouraging. The company’s already strong execution and additional focus on emerging markets has led it to predict 20% compounded annual growth of earnings per share from 2013-2015.

The Foolish takeaway

Visa gets a lot of attention for being one of the market’s best growth stocks, which it is. However, only those investors who can shrug off valuation would consider Visa’s current price to be truly attractive. I appreciate high growth as much as the next investor, but no company can exponentially grow into perpetuity, as a matter of mathematical inevitability. Visa trades for 50 times trailing earnings and 21 times forward earnings according to Yahoo! Finance.

At some point, Visa’s growth trajectory will come down, and its valuation multiples will likely follow.

American Express Company (NYSE:AXP) is the most modestly valued of the three stocks, trading for ‘just’ 18 times earnings. American Express Company (NYSE:AXP) offers a 1.2% dividend, which isn’t very attractive considering the S&P 500 yields 2%, but looks like a hefty yield when compared to its two industry peers. Visa and Mastercard Inc (NYSE:MA) both yield less than 1% annualized.

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