Let me get one thing out in front: Visa (NYSE: V) is a phenomenal company. I mean really, really good. High-quality. Strong moat. Well-managed. Sturdy balance sheet. The works. It’s the epitome of what you should look for in long-term investments.
Alas, Visa’s stock scares me silly. Why? Amid all the happy things you can say about the company, it’s easy to overlook two important points:
Investors are infatuated with this stock. They seem to ignore the considerable uncertainty and risk that lie ahead. Now up more than 30% year to date, Visa’s shares are priced for perfection and nothing else. Visa’s not invulnerable to the dwindling economy. In fact, it’s extremely vulnerable to consumers’ strength or weakness.
Before you send that hate mail, let me explain.
This is pretty serious stuff. On average, it’s an expectation of 17.4% annual growth, based upon predictions that Visa along with rival MasterCard (NYSE: MA) will ride a global shift from paper to plastic commerce. These assumptions are also based on a business model that accepts no credit risk. Unlike American Express (NYSE: AXP) or Discover (NYSE: DFS), Visa simply makes money off transactions an inherently safe and lucrative business model. It’s great work if you can get it.
And investors know this. They’re so confident, in fact, that shares have been bid up to more than 24 times this year’s earnings, and more than 20 times next year’s.
Think about that for a moment, tend to your nosebleed, and acknowledge this point: Yes, earnings are expected to skyrocket, but shares are valued at a level that entirely reflects this. Growth even tremendous growth is already priced in.
Hence, meeting these lofty expectations will likely result in less-than-awesome returns. Here’s a simple example: Say Visa meets 2011 earnings expectations of $3.95 per share, and still commands a multiple of 20 times earnings. Under these assumptions, it’ll reward shareholders with annual returns of less than 8% per year nothing to sneeze at, but nothing to drool over, either. You can pick apart the assumptions all you’d like, but you’ll be hard pressed to come up with anything that’s both rational and spectacular. That’s just the nature of stocks priced for perfection.
Here’s where things get exciting
Now, curious investors will read the above and ask a simple question: What happens if things don’t go as planned? What if growth doesn’t materialize as investors imagine? This is smart thinking. Expectations of assured and unremitting growth are almost invariably wrong. Anyone alive over the past two years can relate. And with Visa, let me be blunt: I think the hype over its supposed explosive growth in the coming years is spectacularly overblown.
Why? Glad you asked.
As we speak, banks like Citigroup (NYSE: C), Bank of America (NYSE: BAC), and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM) are slashing credit card lines like their lives depend on it. One estimate tags this number at $2.7 trillion by 2010, which equates to the evaporation of 60% of the dollar amount of extended credit. The era of consumers’ attachment to credit cards is simply toast. This point is sometimes pooh-poohed by those who note Visa’s dominance in debit transactions. Debit, they insist, will pick up where credit left off.
This is true to a point. But perspective is in order. While debit gets all the attention, credit is still responsible for around two-thirds of total payment volume. Some might argue that payment volume isn’t the end-all profit driver, and that the number of transactions where debit is still king matters, too. This is true. But this source of revenue, called data processing fees, represents only 33% of total revenue, compared to nearly 50% captured by service fees, which is tied to payment volume.
Credit is still a main factor in Visa’s bottom line, and that division is and will be weighed down by consumers adjusting to frugality and banks pulling credit lines. This point should not be ignored. It’s big. It’s real. And it’s dangerous for investors to overlook. The growth expectations for which this stock is priced seem out of touch with the credit card industry’s ongoing paradigm shift.
Excitement, meet caution
Again, let me reiterate: I think Visa is a top-notch company. It really is. But there seems to be a disconnect between the odds of faltering and the odds of perfection. Even if my fear of credit annihilation is totally misguided, shares are still priced at levels that won’t let investors fully capitalize on Visa success. Any way you spin it, I don’t see how you can be excited about these prices.
Article Source: Articles Engine