Stocks of the monoline credit card companies have held up better than those of most other financial services companies-though the monolines have been losing market share.
They have surely been hurt, but the monolines, so-called because cards are their overwhelming specialty, have been spared the worst punishment meted out to the financial sector by investors.
By Friday's close, shares of the top three companies in this category were off an average of 31.6% from their highs. MBNA Corp. was off 32.1%, Capital One Financial Corp. 20.4%, and Providian Financial Corp. 10.7%.
Those performances can hardly be termed good-except when compared with the Standard & Poor's bank index, which has plummeted 36.8% from its high of 788.95 on July 14.
Analysts concede that some key trends in the card industry are deteriorating, but they contend these companies should be able to blunt the chilling effects of a tougher business climate by going into new lines of business and enforcing stricter credit standards.
"In this environment everyone is nervous, but the decline in these stocks is much more a function of the broader market than of weakening fundamentals," contended credit card analyst Jennifer S. Scutti of Prudential Securities Inc.
Even in a harsh market, stocks of these companies are likely to fare better than most others in the financial sector, according to Michael L. Granger at Fox-Pitt Kelton Inc.
Nevertheless, growth of credit card receivables has slowed to just 5% this year, from an average of 15% in the early 1990s, according to analysts. And that trend is unlikely to ease as consumers consolidate their card debt with low-rate home equity loans.
Credit card issuers are branching into new lines to offset those trends.
Issuers, including Capital One and Providian, are offering secured credit cards to customers who have trouble obtaining credit. MBNA is moving into more consumer finance, exploring new business lines in the United Kingdom and Canada, and looking into insurance.
Some of these markets are indeed riskier, said Ms. Scutti of Prudential. However, "these companies are better insulating themselves through fees from the expected higher losses," she said.
Then there is still the consolidation factor to consider.
These companies are specialists, said credit card analyst Joel K. Gomberg of William Blair & Co, Chicago.
"They have expertise in the industry and may be in a market that banks covet because it is a profitable sector," he said. "So there is increased franchise value."
Mr. Gomberg also pointed out that the longer-term outlook for the card industry is definitely positive.
"People are using credit cards more and more in our society," he said. Indeed, they are deployed as much for convenience as for credit in many situations.
"Credit cards are accepted in the post office, on the Internet, and even fast-food places," he said.