Amid the hammering of bank stocks over the past few weeks, shares of some data processors that service financial institutions have been safe havens.
First Data Corp., the largest credit card processor, hit a high last week of $47.625 and closed Thursday at $46.625, up from $42.375 May 18, when the current weakness in bank stocks began with the reading of the consumer price index for April.
Concord EFS Inc., a leading processor of debit card transactions, has increased 17.9% since its last low of $28.625 on May 14, closing Thursday at $34.875. Total System Services, based in Columbus, Ga., which ranks second to First Data in credit card processing for banks, has hovered in the $18 to $19 range since mid-May.
Another processor, Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Tex., has rebounded this year after Richard Brown assumed the post of chief executive officer in January. Under Mr. Brown's leadership the stock reached a 12- month high of $58.1875 on May 21, up from $30.4375 last October. EDS' stock closed at $57 on Thursday.
The positive run of processors' stocks stands in sharp contrast to the performance of the Standard & Poor's bank stock index, which is off 9.2% since mid-May.
Ever since fears of inflation and higher interest rates were rekindled by a much stronger-than-anticipated rise in April consumer prices, investors have fled banks stocks.
But banks and processors have increasingly diverged in the eyes of analysts and investors. Banks, it is believed, should concentrate on customer relationships while processors focus on the nuts and bolts of handing transactions.
Steady growth in the use of credit and debit cards as payment for goods and services has highlighted the role of processors, whose activities range from printing statements to authorizing and settling transactions, to installing point of sale terminals for merchants.
The trend is expected to continue. There will be "more division of labor as we move further into the digital revolution," said Greg E. Gieber of Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co. in New York. "People have to focus on their core competencies."
Mr. Gieber recently opened coverage of First Data with a "neutral" short-term rating and a long-term "buy."
First Data has rebounded from the turmoil of a last year, when executives were fired, business lines were sold, and its stock plummeted. The company named Charles Fote president and chief operating officer last September, and he is credited with streamlining the Atlanta-based processor.
"There's a sense that the company is addressing some of the operational issues that they found that they had," said Franco Turrinelli of William Blair & Co. in Chicago. "Charlie Fote is doing a real nice job making sure their internal operations are getting to where they should be."
In the processing business, capturing transactions is the name of the game, and observers see signs that First Data will continue to lead the industry. It won a big contract when Bank One Corp. decided to outsource the credit card business from its acquisition of First Chicago NBD.
Meanwhile, First Data's Western Union line of business has topped expectations. And to grab a share of the increasing Internet transaction traffic, the processor has also paired up with Microsoft Corp. and International Business Machines of Armonk, N.Y., in Transpoint.
"It is a matter of positioning and having the right partners," Mr. Gieber said. "It's not necessarily who is the best in technology. It is a matter of who is good at marketing."
Meanwhile, in Thursday's market, shares of Huntington Bancshares of Columbus, Ohio, which has been the focus of takeover speculation, advanced 6.81%, to $36.78125. The S&P bank index rose 0.84%, to 661.63, while the Dow Jones industrial average increased 0.81%, to 10,663.69. u