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The 'Forever Stock' Poised To Win The Consumer-Spending War

JOSHSPARROW

If you haven't noticed, consumers are spending a lot.

In fact, they're spending at a record rate. In Q2 2014 alone, domestic consumer spending exceeded a whopping $10.9 trillion -- an all-time high, according to a report by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

And the U.S. consumer confidence rating is up to 84.6 -- just off from last year's record high of 85.10.

Where is all of that money being spent?

Everywhere, it seems. A recent Gallup poll shows that while over  50% of consumers are spending more money on necessities like gas and groceries, over 25% are still spending more on discretionary purchases, like new clothing, vacations and dining out.

Naturally, companies are clamoring to get their share of this record-setting spending spree. But with such a diverse variety of consumer habits and desires, it can be difficult to pinpoint which retailer, manufacturer or restaurant will come out on top.

So, it seems, the obvious winners will be the companies that make the consumer spending possible -- the firms that supply the two credit cards on average that U.S. consumers keep in their wallet at any given time.

According to a 2013 Nilson Report -- a newsletter providing global news and statistics on the payment industry -- credit, debit and prepaid cards were used for more than $5 trillion worth of consumer transactions in the United States in 2012 (its most recent data).

Naturally you might think that it's the credit card companies that offer you the best opportunity to capitalize on this massive opportunity, but not quite.

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It's important to note the distinction between credit card companies and credit card networks.

Credit card companies are the financial institutions that issue credit or debit cards and manage consumer payments, fees and accrued interest.  Typically, these are banks, like Capital One, Chase or Citibank.

Credit card networks, however, simply dictate where cards can be used and handle the actual processing of any transactions. Visa, American Express, Discover and MasterCard are the four major credit card networks.

The reason it's important to make this distinction is simple: it allows you to identify a company's risk exposure.

Credit card companies have a much higher exposure to risk than credit card networks because their profits are generated primarily through service fees and interest charges. And as we saw during the 2008 market crash, the majority of these companies fell on hard times when they were unable to minimize the vast amount of unpaid debt being accrued.

Credit card networks are the more reliable investment. Sure, a drop in consumer spending can hurt them as well, but being able to avoid a mountain of unpaid interest payments bodes well for the companies' outlooks in the event of another big hit to the markets.

And since American Express and Discover serve as both credit card networks and credit card companies, they are exposed to both sides of the risk. Therefore, your strongest investment opportunity really comes down to two choices...

Visa, Inc. (NYSE: V) and MasterCard, Inc. (NYSE: MA) account for nearly 80% of the global credit card network market share. Both are accepted in more than 200 countries worldwide and by roughly eight million merchants in the United States. Together, the two accounted for 63.4 billion domestic purchases in 2014 -- worth roughly $3.32 trillion.

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Both companies have also performed well -- more than doubling the markets return over the last five years.

While the market returned a respectable 90% over the last five years, MasterCard has returned over 261%, with Visa not far behind, returning more than 202%.

But with strong recent performances by both companies, the question still remains:

What's your best option going forward?

Compare the two credit card giants on paper and the answer to that question becomes pretty apparent.

  Visa MasterCard
Market Cap $131.3 billion $86.8 billion
Revenue (TTM) $12.45 billion $8.90 billion
Dividend Yield 0.75% 0.51%
Forward P/E Ratio 20.3 20.8
Price-to-Book Ratio 4.9 14.2
Beta 0.70 0.96

Down the board, Visa is the much more attractive offer. The company can offer investors a higher market cap than MA and at a much lower beta, making Visa the more stable option. In addition, it offers a modest, but growing, dividend yield and is more fairly valued at a price-to-book ratio of nearly one-third the size of MasterCard's.

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And though MasterCard has generated higher returns over the past few years, one new development could be just the tailwind Visa needs to reach a higher growth rate than its primary competitor: the introduction of Apple Pay.

Apple will rely on partnerships with both Visa and MasterCard to bolster its mobile-payments movement. The ease and security of Apple's new technology could lead the way for a massive shift as consumers move away from cash and instead opt for digital wallets.

And, according to The Nilson Report, Visa is the global market leader in e-payments, accounting for nearly half of all credit card transactions and about 75% of all debit card transactions over the past few years.

Higher consumer-spending, coupled with a mobile-payments revolution and an ever-increasing number of e-commerce purchases -- from retailers like Amazon and Alibaba -- put Visa in the driver's seat to grow profits and provide shareholders with an unprecedented growth opportunity.

Risks to consider: Cyber-theft of millions of credit card numbers can make consumers feel vulnerable and may cause an influx of cash-only purchases. Also, Visa may be susceptible to occasional pullbacks following lawsuits or increased regulations, as the company operates in an oligopoly.

Action to take-->  With a massive market cap and a low beta, Visa is a strong, reliable company that is poised to benefit from new consumer spending trends and the rise of the mobile wallet. Consider adding V to your portfolio.

A market-dominating company like Visa is a good candidate for what my colleague Dave Forest calls "Forever" stocks. These are some of the best stocks on the planet and many of them are so strong, investors could buy them and hold onto them forever.  One of them has even turned every $500 invested in 1972 into more than $1 million today.  Get all the details on Forever Stocks -- including the names and ticker symbols of some of Dave's favorites -- by clicking here.

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