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Card issuers have been getting attention in the financial media in recent weeks because of Berkshire Hathaway's (NYSE:BRK.A) recent purchases of Visa (NYSE:V) and MasterCard (NYSE:MA). These were likely the work of Ted Weschler and Todd Combs, not Buffett, but receive a lot of attention nevertheless. Buffett is also a fan of card issuers, and first bought shares in American Express (NYSE:AXP) in 1964. Berkshire still has a 13% stake in the company.

With a growing number of consumers using debit and credit cards for in-store and online sales, card issuers have favorable long-term prospects. The big four - Visa, MasterCard, Amex, and Discover (NYSE:DFS) - in the industry account for nearly all card transactions in the U.S. Every long-term investor should be familiar with these four companies.

Below is a snap shot of each company, displaying EPS (excluding non-recurring gains/losses), revenue per share, and return on equity. Visa and MasterCard are growing revenues and profits at the fastest pace, but they are also selling at high P/Es. Discover looks cheap on a P/E basis, but is expected to have difficulty growing earnings this year.

These are attractive entry points to invest into American Express or Discover as long-term holdings. Visa and MasterCard have high expectations from investors, hence the high P/Es. Investors might want to wait for a pullback before investing into Visa or MasterCard.

American Express

American Express was first established in 1850 as an express delivery company by the same founders as Wells Fargo (NYSE:WFC). Today it generates more than $30 billion in annual revenue. It is the largest and most diversified among the Big Four.

YearEPSRevenue Per ShareReturn on Equity
20011.2816.9714.3%
20022.0118.2419.3%
20032.3120.1419.6%
20042.7423.3121.9%
20052.319.5527.4%
20062.8222.6333.1%
20073.2923.9535.8%
20082.3324.4522.8%
20091.5420.5714.8%
20103.3523.2425.0%
20114.0825.7426.0%

Current Share Price: $53

Price/Earnings: 13

MasterCard

MasterCard generates about $7 billion in annual revenue. It is the fastest-growing among the Big Four and generates the highest return on equity.

YearEPSRevenue Per ShareReturn on Equity
20041.7619.2124.4%
20051.9821.7622.8%
20063.3724.6418.8%
20078.0030.9933.4%
20089.0138.6256.7%
200911.1639.2939.5%
201014.0542.3234.0%
201118.7052.4539.5%

Current Share Price: $395

Price/Earnings: 21

Discover Financial Services

Discover generates about $7 billion in annual revenue, the same as MasterCard. However, MasterCard is growing at a much faster pace.

YearEPSRevenue Per ShareReturn on Equity
20071.7510.5815.0%
20081.1010.058.9%
20090.1012.390.6%
20101.2212.5911.8%
20114.0613.3627.0%

Current Share Price: $29.60

Price/Earnings: 7.3

Visa

Visa generates over $9 billion in annual revenue and generates roughly 38% of the credit card transactions and 60% of debit card transactions in the U.S.

YearEPSRevenue Per ShareReturn on Equity
20082.258.088.0%
20092.929.129.5%
20103.919.6411.9%
20114.9911.313.8%

Current Share Price: $115

Price/Earnings: 23

Source: Credit Card Issuers Make Great Long-Term Holdings