Fresh questions about credit card issuers’ mobile-payments strategies are likely to surface starting later this week as major card-issuing banks release their 2011 fourth-quarter earnings, beginning with JPMorgan Chase & Co. on Jan. 13.

Issuers’ early mobile-payment moves are too small so far to affect the bottom line, but the emerging roadmaps and alliances of specific card issuers are becoming increasingly important to long-term profitability prospects.

“There is a race on to build interoperability for mobile payments, and there will be winners and losers,” John Stilmar, a director at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey Inc., an Atlanta-based investment banking firm, tells PaymentsSource. “It’s too early now to see mobile payments driving actual results, but the platforms and business models various issuers are setting up now will go a long way toward pegging their future success.”

Certain other stock analysts last fall dismissed Near Field Communication-based mobile-payment technology and mobile wallets as “overhyped” (see story).

The first issuer to report its earnings during this cycle, Discover Financial Services, faced analysts’ questions about its mobile-payment strategy when the company on Dec. 15 announced its earnings for the fiscal fourth quarter ended Nov. 30 (see story).

Discover CEO David Nelms told analysts during a conference call that day the company “is working with multiple handset manufacturers and technology companies.” The card brand is aligned with the two of the most-prominent mobile-wallet programs announced so far, Isis and Google Wallet, in its efforts to “aggressively pursue many opportunities,” he noted.

“Not everything will work, and that’s one of the reasons we are hedging our bets to be involved in a number of efforts so that we are aligned with that ultimately emerge as winners in this,” Nelms said.

Indeed, there likely will be a “first-mover advantage” for issuers that latch on early to the mobile-payment technology that eventually becomes a hit, Stilmar says.

“In this race there is a push to be first, but there will probably be several versions of what eventually takes hold,” Stilmar notes.

Merely shifting payments at the point of sale from swiping a card to tapping a phone “is probably overhyped, if it’s just a form-factor change,” he says.

But the opportunity for card issuers and networks to play a key role in new payment technologies that change consumer behavior, “like the Internet and Facebook have changed things,” cannot be underestimated, Stilmar says.

“At some point, issuers will be building a presence in the mobile-payments landscape very quickly, and those that have the best play will be the winners, which is why the industry is watching how the various strategies take shape,” he says.

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