MasterCard Dazzles

After years of adoration, investors seemingly forgot about MasterCard (NYSE: MA  ) and threw themselves all over Visa (NYSE: V  ) . It seemed as though MasterCard didn't even exist anymore.

Then on Tuesday, with a brazen pre-market earnings announcement, MasterCard reminded investors that there are two hot credit card mamas in this market.

How hot are these stocks?
Visa was initially offered in mid-March in the largest IPO ever in the U.S. Since then, the stock is up more than 80%. The MasterCard IPO was two years ago. Since then, the stock is up more than 600%. You read that right -- 600%!

Va va voom
MasterCard, like Visa, reported an absolute blowout quarter in the midst of a miserable economy. Profits more than doubled and the stock rocketed more than 12% in trading Tuesday.

Profits increased primarily on foreign customers' ever-increasing penchant for plastic over cash. Also, like Visa, American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) , and  Discover Financial (NYSE: DFS  ) , MasterCard reported increased cardholder spending in the U.S.

MasterCard's profits for the first quarter increased to $446.9 million from $214.9 million and earnings per share soared to $3.38 from $1.57 in last year's quarter. Actually, after excluding one-time gains, earnings per share came in at $2.59. This number blew away the Thomson Financial average analyst estimate of $2 per share and, at $1.2 billion, revenue beat analysts' estimates of $1.07 billion.

How good is this business?
MasterCard and Visa have business models that are superior to that of American Express, Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) , Discover, and Capital One (NYSE: COF  ) because they don't lend out their own money. Thus, they aren't struggling with consumer delinquencies. They just collect transaction tolls on the exponentially growing global money highway.

Although MasterCard is nicely positioned to benefit from the global trend from cash to plastic and U.S. revenues are still growing in this economy, a souring U.S. economy would ultimately hurt its bottom line. In fact, a cautious Visa issued conservative three-year growth projections based on anticipated slowness in the economy.

Quite simply, MasterCard has one of the best businesses in the world, both in terms of current earnings and future prospects. The only drawback is price. MasterCard stock sells for about 35 times earnings. Can MasterCard hiccup in a deteriorating economy and maintain this price? Can it really go to 40 or 50 times earnings in this market?

Should I buy it?
As good as MasterCard is, it seems to be selling at a fair price (to be kind). Logic dictates that you wait for a dip to buy. But, since when does logic matter? The price of both MasterCard and Visa just keeps going higher despite valuation concerns. I'm sick of being rational and wrong. I'd rather be irrational and rich.

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