MasterCard Stock – Opportunity to Add a “CARP”: Compounder at a Reasonable Price $MA

Mastercard reported earnings this past week and the stock got hammered as it missed expectations. Take this as an opportunity to buy Mastercard stock.

MA Chart

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A lot of people know Visa and Mastercard, but they don’t know how the business actually works. Simply put: card networks act as the toll booth connecting the “issuing bank” with the “acquiring bank” and they take a fee as the transaction goes across. The “issuing bank” is the bank that issued the credit card. The acquiring bank is the bank of the merchant. Ryan Reeves has great commentary on this network, which I found in a tweet of his. He also has a blog post on it where he explains it well:

The company where you put your money, called a bank, gives you a piece of plastic, called a credit card, that signals you will pay for something later. When you buy coffee from Starbucks using your piece of plastic, your bank sends the $4 to Starbucks, instead of you paying. But before Starbucks gets the money, two things need to happen.

Your bank has already made a promise with another company called a card network whose job it is to act like a toll booth between two banks. The most popular card networks are Visa and Mastercard.  These card networks make promises with other banks called merchant banks, who hold money for the stores where we buy stuff. So the money from your bank first goes to through the card network and then to the merchant bank and finally to Starbucks, each company taking a little bit of money along the way for their services. And then the final piece, at the end of every month, you pay back your bank for the money they sent to Starbucks. And that’s how credit works!

Here’s a diagram from Plaid as well as their explanation:

Card networks—for simplicity in this explanation, let’s say Visa—receive fees from the issuing and acquiring financial institutions. Visa makes money by collecting a small percentage (0.13 percent as of early 2015) of total transaction volume, rather than by charging a fee on each transaction. But it also sets and doles out the rest of the fee paid by the merchant to the other players. While this percentage may seem nominal, billions of transactions processed each year (with minimal overhead) add up to a very profitable industry.

What’s more, a network like Visa’s entrenched partnerships and critical technologies create high barriers to entry for new players. Established card networks also have low marginal costs to continue operating, making them attractive business models.

So Plaid touches on a few things here: High barriers to entry, toll booth business, low marginal costs. This translates to really high margins and super high FCF. And since payment transactions are growing quickly (ex-COVID), the company is able to leverage those costs and expand margins. For example, look at both revenue growth and margin expansion. Most companies I follow don’t even have 50% gross margins

People often look at the current market structure and think, “This will clearly be disrupted. It is too complicated.”  Card networks work because they have high degrees of trust and a large network, which makes their usage more attractive. Take American Express on the other hand which actually has a different model. Have you seen many merchants say they don’t accept American Express? Amex “consolidate functions of the merchant bank, card issuer, and card network by personally extending credit and cards, and minimizing parties involved.” However, their fees are too high for the merchant and AmEx gives a lot back to the consumer.

Square also differs somewhat, too. Instead, they aggregate the merchant transactions and pass of the processing to Chase.  You will always hear about one of these names (Square, Stripe, Apple Pay, etc) are “disrupting payments.” In reality, they are all still passing through the card network monopoly.


As I discussed in a post where I broke down the core driver for long-term shareholder returns, Mastercard has compounded FCF at ~20% rate for almost 14 years. And its stock has compounded at an even higher rate as people realize this.

So why is there an opportunity now? Well, COVID-19 has caused investors to reset the bar lower this year. Sales were down 14% in Q3’20, but Op Income down 20% (due to fixed costs). You can’t have a dramatic recession and expect spending to be up. That obviously will have a direct impact on Mastercard. But that makes Mastercard interesting because its a very strong business, but also a recovery play. Indeed, there may even be higher tailwinds on the way out – think of less use of physical cash.

And the long-term growth story is still intact. Look at how much in transaction volume is still down via cash and check.

Is Mastercard Cheap? I think so. But you say – Mastercard trades at 45x 2020 EPS?? And 34x ’21. That is not cheap.

First of all, is Mastercard an above-average business? Yes. Is its long-term growth rate above the market? Yes. It should trade at a premium.

Second, Mastercard trades at ~3% FCF yield, but also it can grow FCF/share at a 10%+ CAGR for the next 10 years. This would be half the rate of the past 14 years. I think growth will continue from continued market gains (remember, pre-COVID, the company was growing top-line in the high teens and bottom line even faster due to operating leverage. This will continue at a high rate in a post-COVID world). That points to at least a low double-digit IRR for the stock. I would also point you to my post on how Growth can help pay for a lot of sins

I’m not going to publish my whole model here, but I encourage you to check your models for this. This is the beginning FCF yield + what I expect FCF to compound out. It is interesting how it almost matches up perfectly with the IRR of the investment:

There are still capital structure benefits that could come. As I talked about in my MSCI post, MSCI is leveraging its cash flow and returning significant cash to shareholders. Mastercard is roughly net debt zero. If they had 2.0x of leverage, that would be an incremental $18-$20 billion available for shareholders, which would obviously boost returns. I also think they’d be comfortably investment grade at that level as well.

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