A rebound in consumer, both in the U.S. and around the world, helped lift MasterCard's fourth-quarter profit by 41 percent, the company said Thursday.
Activity in the U.S. in particular was encouraging, according to President and CEO Ajay Banga, who said that consumer credit card use increased for the first time since mid-2008. Spending on necessities like groceries was above pre-recession levels in the quarter ended Dec. 31, he said. Nondiscretionary spending on things like restaurants also rose.
And it appears more people have begun to travel across national borders again, which benefits payment processors like MasterCard because credit card use is frequent and they benefit from fees.
That type of spending was up 6 percent in the final quarter of the year, said Chief Financial Officer Martina Hund-Mejean, compared with negative to break-even for the 2009 period. Trends through the end of January show that trend continuing, she said in an interview.
What hasn't shown much improvement yet is big-ticket spending on items like furniture and large consumer goods. Consumers appear to be waiting for more evidence that the economy is on solid ground.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll see continued improvements in 2011," Banga said. "It's just that it's hard to see sustained growth until the housing market and unemployment improve."
There are signs that that is occurring. The Institute for Supply Management, a private trade group, reported Thursday that the U.S. service sector grew in January at its fastest pace in five years. The sector includes retailers, hotels, healthcare companies and financial firms and employees nearly 90 percent of America's work force.
It was just the latest report suggesting that the economy is again expanding and that companies are beginning to hire.
For the three months ended Dec. 31, MasterCard Inc. posted net income of $415 million, or $3.16 per share. That was up from $294 million, or $2.24 per share, in the 2009 fourth quarter.
Revenue jumped 11 percent to $1.44 billion from $1.3 billion the prior year.
Analysts, on average, expected a profit of $3.03 per share, on revenue of $1.43 billion, according to data from FactSet.
The number of transactions the Purchase, N.Y.-based company handled rose 6.3 percent to 6.2 billion.
The payments processing network got small boosts from higher investment income, lower interest expenses, a litigation settlement and a lower tax rate.
MasterCard said purchase volume jumped 11 percent from the prior year to $567 billion. That reflected higher use of both credit and debit cards in the U.S. and worldwide.
In the U.S., credit card use rose by 3 percent, after consumers. U.S. shoppers also used debit cards bearing MasterCard logos more often, with purchase volume rising almost 4 percent. That's a positive sign for MasterCard, which lags its larger rival Visa Inc. in increasingly popular debit cards.
The company's big gains, however, came from overseas, which provides more than half the MasterCard's revenue. Credit card use jumped 13 percent worldwide, and debit card use — a much smaller business line — leaped 32 percent. The strongest growth came from Latin America, followed by the Asia/Pacific/Middle East/Africa. Card use was also strong in Europe.
Both MasterCard and Visa continue to target foreign markets. SunTrust analyst Andrew Jeffrey said that strategy makes sense. "International markets, save developed Europe, are growing faster than the U.S.," he observed.
For MasterCard, even Europe can be a growth market, Jeffrey added, because it has the lion's share of the European debit market, and because the company is participating in the initiative to create a single payments system throughout the continent, not just in the eurozone.
Expansion in foreign markets is also insulated from U.S. regulation. A pending rule that would slash the fees that merchants pay banks to process debit card transactions to 12 cents per transaction, from an average of 44 cents for PIN-based purchases and 56 cents for signature-based purchases has been weighing on the processing network stocks for months.
While both MasterCard and Visa, along with banks and credit unions of all sizes, are lobbying Washington to delay the rule or change it, analyst Shannon Stemm thinks it will go ahead as proposed. "We are not anticipating any changes to that cap," she said.
For the full year 2010, MasterCard reported net income of $1.85 billion, or $14.05 per share, compared with $1.46 billion, or $11.16 per share for 2009.
In midday trading, MasterCard shares rose nearly 2 percent, or $4.58, to $243.97.
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