Shares of credit card runner-up MasterCard (NYSE:MA) surged after-hours yesterday after reporting better-than-expected third-quarter earnings fueled by stellar growth. Whoa, when was the last time anyone said that about a financial services company so closely tied to consumers?

Net income after special items came in at $322 million, or $2.47 per share. That was only about 7% above the $2.31 per share earned in the same period last year, but analysts were looking for just $2.25 per share. Revenue grew 23.6% to $1.3 billion -- pretty impressive stuff coming in the middle of a global slowdown. Results were adjusted to exclude a payment to Discover Financial (NYSE:DFS) after MasterCard and rival Visa (NYSE:V) settled a four-year spat with Discover and American Express (NYSE:AXP) over bullying banks into exclusively issuing their cards.

Rough road ahead?
Shares have been lopped in half over the past six months after the all too apparent recession we're heading into threatens to derail the gangbusters growth shareholders have come to expect. While those fears are certainly justified, MasterCard is still growing at a pretty healthy clip: Purchase volume increased 13.3% to nearly half a trillion dollars, while total transactions grew 13%, to 5.4 billion. As has been the case for a while, global growth led the way with 24.6% purchase volume growth in the Asia/Pacific region, 24.9% growth in South Asia/Middle East/Africa, and 18.9% growth in Latin America. Few complaints there. U.S. purchase volume grew at a much more modest 6.6% ... by far MasterCard's slowest growing segment.

The question shareholders need to ask is whether the 50% pullback in the last six months makes shares cheap enough to tag as a value. Analysts still expect MasterCard to earn $10.71 in 2009, a figure that puts shares of this growth machine at around 15 times forward earnings. Of course, those short-term projections could bring a new meaning to the word "optimism" if a prolonged global recession keeps consumers suppressed. We already know consumers are saving more ... which inevitably means they're spending less.

That said, sure, shares are probably cheap enough today to justify buying, but the near-term future is bound to be anything but easy. If you have the guts to dip your toes in, you'd be well advised to check your lofty expectations at the door, have a long-term time horizon, and be prepared for an all-out fallout of the global consumer over the next year or two.

Tell us what you think
Refusing to hear anyone else's opinion: Free. Advice from a fancy-pants broker: Thousands of dollars. Seeing what 120,000 investors in our CAPS community have to say: Priceless. Click here to come on over to CAPS and see what other investors are saying about MasterCard.

For related Foolishness:

Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. Discover Financial Services and American Express Company are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. The Fool owns shares of American Express Company and has a disclosure policy.