What does an investor do with an opportunity like Visa (NYSE:V)? The Visa stock price continues to stay elevated, at over 27-times forward earnings. Of the 40 largest U.S.-listed stocks by market capitalization, only Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and rival Mastercard (NYSE:MA) sport higher valuations.
And yet V stock certainly seems to merit a premium valuation. Few large-capitalization stocks can match its near-term growth prospects. Long-term opportunities come in several forms: lower use of cash worldwide, international expansion, and a move into business-to-business (B2B) offerings.
Does an investor follow the Warren Buffett maxim that it’s “far better to own a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price,” as I argued back in 2017? Or does valuation matter, particularly in a bull market seemingly running on fumes?
For now, Visa stock seems a worthwhile bet. But investors probably have to temper their expectations. The next decade is not going to look like the last one.
The Incredible Rise in the Visa Stock Price
Looking backwards, investors certainly missed a huge opportunity in Visa stock. Over the past ten years, shares have returned 953%, not including an admittedly modest dividend. Those gains haven’t come just because of the bull market either. In 2009, the company earned 81 cents per share (adjusting for the company’s 2015 stock split). A decade ago, the stock (again, on a split-adjusted basis) traded for $16-plus, implying a P/E multiple right at 20x.
Relative to 2019 expectations, the multiple now sits at 31x. And there are two ways to look at that expansion. The first is that the incredible gains in the Visa stock price are coming mostly from higher earnings. Based on the Street’s expectations for 2019, V should climb nearly 500% from 2009 levels.
The second, however, is a more difficult question: can the multiples assigned V stock really go much higher? This is a much larger company, which makes percentage growth more difficult to achieve. Yet investors now are paying 50%-plus more for the same dollar of earnings. As impressive as Visa’s opportunities are, it’s tough to argue that its growth potential is better now than it was a decade ago.
Obviously, the market today is in much better shape than in June 2009, when it was just three months removed from financial crisis lows. But that’s kind of the point: Visa’s earnings multiples can’t expand much more without the broad market moving higher.
In that scenario, earnings growth still can drive returns — again, profits are expected to rise 15%-plus in 2020. But roughly 16% annual returns (including the dividend) might seem disappointing in the context of the recent performance.
Is V Stock the Best Play?
As incredible as the performance of Visa stock seems, there’s something more incredible: Mastercard. Visa has returned nearly 1,000% in a decade, yet V shares have underperformed their rival over that span. In fact, MA has been the better pick over one, three, and five-year periods as well. Its 10-year return is a staggering 1,460%.
At the moment, MA actually is slightly more expensive on an earnings basis than V stock. Mastercard has greater exposure to non-U.S. payments, and thus, at least in theory, more room for growth. And while past performance doesn’t guarantee future performance, the better returns from Mastercard shares are at least worth considering.
Of course, Visa and Mastercard aren’t the only two stocks in the space, either. Will Healy this month highlighted a potential opportunity in Discover Financial Services (NYSE:DFS), which trades at a substantial discount to both V and MA despite significant potential risk in China. American Express (NYSE:AXP) has been an inconsistent performer, but offers value as well.
The stories of the four stocks aren’t the same; at the moment, it’s foolish to argue that DFS or AXP should be treated like their rivals. But when considering V stock at these multiples, investors should at least keep an open mind toward other stocks in the space.
Visa Looks Good, but Not Great
At the least, the next decade for the Visa stock price is not going to look like the last decade. That’s probably not surprising: a repeat of the 950%-plus gains would give Visa a market cap of some $4 trillion.
But performance could be good — and still far short of the standard Visa has set. Bear in mind that if V stock appreciated at 10.5% a year for the next decade, it would reach a $1 trillion market cap ten years from now. Maybe that’s not unrealistic in a world where credit-card usage continues to rise. Plus, Visa’s efforts in cross-border payments and B2B could bear fruit.
Still, $1 trillion does seem like a big ask for returns that almost seem middling given the torrid performance of payment companies of late. And it shows the difficulty in Visa stock here. There’s a path to a $1 trillion valuation, which is the good news. But whether 10%-plus a year is good enough for investors depends on their view of the markets and the competition.
As of this writing, Vince Martin has no positions in any securities mentioned.
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