Today, 85% of all retail transactions are made with cash or check, but is that about to change? It's beginning to look that way, as consumers start to leave their cash in the bank and take it out using their credit and debit cards.

In 2010, 48% of all retail transactions were done with cards in the U.S., and by 2013, that number was up to 50%. The Nilson Report (a credit/debit card statistics site) estimates that number could increase to 59% by 2015. A Cornell study points out that as the economy gets worse, like it did several years ago, consumers tend to retreat back to cash, but as the economy gets better, consumers start using their cards more often.

As the U.S. economy improves, more card transactions will occur in the U.S., and that will help credit card companies such as MasterCard and Visa .


Not the master
MasterCard controlled 33.5% of the global credit card business in 2011 (according to Nilson) and 18.9% of the global debit card business. This pales in comparison to Visa's 50.1% share of the credit card market and a whooping 76.9% of the global debit card market.

This could be a good sign for MasterCard because it means they have room to grow. In 2006, MasterCard issued out 810 million payment cards; that number increased to 1.06 billion in 2011 and is expected to reach 1.42 billion in 2016. The more cards out in the world means the more transactions MasterCard will have to process, which will boost the bottom line.

Industry growth
The purchase volume in the U.S. is up big over the past five years. Credit card volume is up 17%, debit cards are up 61%, and prepaid cards are up a whooping 211%. The majority of the growth is coming from the debit card market as it catches up to the credit card market.

In 2002, volume in the U.S. credit card market was $1.2 trillion, versus $472 billion for the debit card market. By 2012, that gap was rapidly closing as the credit card market reached $2.2 trillion and the debit market was $1.8 trillion.

This explosive growth is why Visa stock has shot upwards 170% since its 2008 IPO while the S&P 500 is up 28%. MasterCard is up over 1,270% since its 2006 IPO, while the S&P 500 is up 31%.

Visa issued out 1.71 billion payment cards in 2006, which went up to 2.35 billion in 2011 and is expected to reach 3.05 billion in 2016. Both Visa and MasterCard see higher levels of growth if the volume of transactions increases and the companies are issuing more cards.

Growth potential 
One of the big future growth runways for MasterCard and Visa will be countries like India as they modernize. As of right now, 99% of India's retail purchases are done with cash, so the growth potential is huge. As mentioned earlier, 85% of all retail purchases are done with cash or check -- a number that will decrease over time as more parts of the world modernize.

From 2011 to 2016, Nilson expects purchase transaction growth of 105% in Asia, 99% in the Middle East/Africa, and 97% in Latin America. For the developed markets of the U.S., Canada, and Europe, they see five-year growth of 44%, 33%, and 51%, respectively.

As MasterCard and Visa push into new markets, and developed markets see their economies improve (fueling increased card usage), their growth rates will keep going up. This is why MasterCard and Visa are both expected to grow their EPS by 18%-19% over the next few years.

Higher volume transactions coupled with more cards in circulation could allow these two companies to easily beat those estimates. With emerging markets like Mexico and Brazil modernizing and consumers showing strong growth in both these countries, volume transactions will rise. More transactions means more fees that these companies rake in, and happier shareholders.

In the developed markets, consumers will start using cards more often as the eurozone has just emerged from an 18-month long recession and the U.S. sees its unemployment (ever so slowly) creep toward full employment (5%-6%).

The card of the rich
Economists often look at sales from Wal-Mart to see how the ordinary consumer is holding up, and they look at American Express to see how the wealthier consumers are doing.

American Express is benefiting from a growing credit portfolio, as its credit card portfolio rose to $54.6 billion in July from $54.4 billion in June. This means its credit card balance is up 3.8% year over year and is currently growing at a 4.4% annualized rate.

A bigger credit card balance sheet means that they have more money they can charge interest on, which boosts the bottom line. While consumers as a whole have gone through a massive deleveraging process since 2008 (which is a very good thing for the U.S. economy), it looks like some of them may be ready to start borrowing again.

One thing you have to worry about is credit card delinquencies, because an increase in delinquencies eats into profits and erodes the stock price. American Express, due in part to its wealthier customer base, is able to keep its delinquency rate low. In July, it was down to 1.88% from 2.04% in June.

Credit card balances tend to go down as consumers pay off last year's debt. Going forward, American Express has the holiday season to boost growth as consumers ramp up spending once again. American Express will also be able to ride the shift to plastic in the U.S. if the Nilson Report is right and the amount of retail purchases rises.

A growing balance sheet before the holiday season coupled with a sub-2% delinquency rate could propel American Express' earnings in the next six months. In the long term, American Express will be able to ride the continued switch to plastic in the U.S., which will make its balance sheet bigger, earning it more interest and boosting the bottom line.

All of that to say
The growth runway for plastic is huge, especially in emerging markets as they enter the 21st century. MasterCard and Visa have positioned themselves to capitalize on this growth and the continued switch to plastic in developed markets. Both companies offer great long-term growth prospects. American Express is also well-positioned for the continued shift to plastic in the U.S.

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The article 3 Companies Profiting From the Swipe originally appeared on Fool.com.

Callum Turcan has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends American Express, MasterCard, and Visa. The Motley Fool owns shares of MasterCard and Visa. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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