Investing is great means of building wealth, but looking for the very highest gains possible can be a risky way to do it. If you have a large, diversified portfolio, one big winner can make up for several disappointing laggards. But if you're just getting started -- or if seeing a big pullback in your portfolio would cost you sleep at night -- there are stocks that mix low risk with high performance over time. One of them is Visa (V -1.37%).

Visa is a stable, dependable industry leader that has thumped the broader market over the past five years, gaining almost double the S&P 500's returns -- it's nearly tripled while the venerable index has doubled over that time period. Let's see why Visa is a low-risk, long-term winner to add to your portfolio.

A group of people hold drinks while one woman uses her phone against a payment terminal to make a payment.

Image source: Getty Images.

A simple, profitable model

Visa makes money every time you swipe your credit card, which is why its operating premise is so compelling. And unlike banks, it doesn't have to account for defaults -- it just facilitates the transaction between the cardholder's financial institution and the merchant's. It's the largest payment processor in the world, making up a virtual duopoly with Mastercard.

The main risk for Visa is an economic collapse, and we saw that up close last year. Visa's revenue declined by about 17% in the third and fourth quarters of its fiscal 2020, both during the height of pandemic-related store closures in the United States (Visa's fiscal year ends Sept. 30). That has slowly been improving, and Visa reported a 2% sales decline for the second quarter of its fiscal 2021, which ended March 31. Investors can typically count on Visa for solid revenue growth, such as an 11% revenue increase for fiscal 2019.

Another point in Visa's favor is that even in difficult times, people still have to spend, making Visa's declines less drastic than, for example, companies that market non-essentials. It's also not threatened by the fintech revolution; rather, it's benefiting from it. Digital payments require card processing just as in-store payments do.

Equally important, Visa runs a very profitable business. The company doesn't have to pay for stores, cost of goods sold, or high marketing expenses. That means it has higher margins than blue-chip companies in many other industries. Even in the second quarter, with its slight decline, net revenue of $5.7 billion produced net income of $3 billion. Visa maintained earnings, although lower, throughout the pandemic-related revenue drops.

Loads of future potential

Visa's recovery is tied to the total economic recovery. That's already happening in the U.S., but the pandemic is still ravaging other parts of the world. That means investors shouldn't expect a complete rebound here in the fiscal third quarter. But sales may head back into growth territory soon. Most of the second-quarter numbers were back to pre-pandemic growth, such as an 11% increase in payment volume. The main detractor was cross-border volume, which is connected to travel.

As for the future, economic booms are more frequent that economic blowouts. They're also more intense -- markets tend to increase more during good times than they retract during bad times. Visa gains from that trend.

It's improving its infrastructure to better support digital payments and enable contactless transactions, and it's developing partnerships to reach a broader audience. CEO Al Kelly said the company sees a $120 trillion opportunity in business to business digital payments, and an $185 trillion opportunity in what it calls new flows, or payment options outside of traditional pathways..

A dependable stock

I will point out that Visa has underperformed the market so far this year, even though it has outperformed over the past five years.

V 5 Year Price Returns (Daily) Chart

Data by YCharts

It's still picking up the pieces from the pandemic, and that is reflected in the stock gains. But shares are trading at about 37 times forward-one-year earnings -- a reasonable premium for a market leader that's so consistently profitable. Visa is an excellent choice to provide stability, value, and long-term power to your portfolio.