By Todd Shriber
Credit card debt is just an unfortunate fact of life for many Americans, but the savvy among us know that revenge can be had by investing in credit card stocks, some of which are among the most legitimate growth opportunities in the financial services universe. MasterCard (NYSE:MA) and Visa (NYSE:V) are prime examples of that. In the past two years, MasterCard has surged more than 70% and Visa is up more than 30% while the Financial Select Sector SPDR (NYSE:XLF) is flat.
Investors that need a little cajoling when it comes to credit card stocks should remember one thing: Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK.A) holds equity positions in MasterCard and Visa along with Dow component American Express (NYSE:AXP). In fact, American Express is one of Berkshire's oldest positions.
Speaking of American Express, it might just be the credit card stock for the more conservative investor. The largest credit-card lender by spending recently raised its quarterly dividend by 11% to 20 cents a share, the company's first dividend increase since 2007, and the company said it plans to repurchase up to 150 million of its own shares. American Express, which focuses on affluent customers, has among the lowest delinquency and charge-off rates in the credit-card industry, according to MarketWatch.
And for what it's worth, there has been speculation in the past that Berkshire may opt to acquire American Express outright. That doesn't appear likely at the moment, but anything is possible.
An unheralded credit card name worth taking a look at is Alliance Data Systems (NYSE:ADS). The company emphasizes private-label card lending and KBW recently upgraded the stock to "outperform" with a $149 price target, implying decent upside from current levels of $125. KBW said Alliance Data "trades at very attractive valuations for its EPS growth rate and economic return profile relative to its peers."
Discover Financial (NYSE:DFS) is another credit card name that should note be overlooked. In fact, in the past two years, the stock has more than doubled. In 2012 alone, the stock is up nearly 39%. When the company reported its fiscal first-quarter results in late March, it said the number of transactions with the Discover card increased 7%, and credit card balances jumped 3.6% to $45.9 billion. The company lowered its reserves set aside for bad loans and defaults by $226 million because defaults and tardy payments have slide to a 25-year low.
As a result of the bullish numbers, Goldman Sachs upgraded Discover to "buy" from "neutral" while raising its rating on the credit card sector to "attractive" from "neutral." The bank said even after Discover completes a $2 billion share repurchase program, the company will still have $3 billion in cash, hardly given credit for.