American Express Could be More Aggressive Growing Cardmember Base

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Amid the slow pace of economic recovery in the U.S., American Express ( AXP ) still managed to close 2010 with revenues rising 13.4% to $27.8 billion. The total transaction volume on American Express-issued cards, both charge cards and credit cards issued in the U.S. and internationally and to corporations across the globe grew inline with the historical growth rates of over 13%. However, these gains were largely due to an improving macroeconomic environment which was a tide that lifted all boats. In order to give us more confidence on American Express' ability to keep competitors Visa ( V ), MasterCard ( MA ) and Capital One ( COF ), we would like to see American Express grow its customer base.

A Quick Recap

American Express's 2010 revenues grew 13% from $24.5 billion in 2009. American Express did not however push the number of its cards-in-use, which remained more or less flat at 2009 levels. American Express issued card-in-use in U.S. grew by 0.7% to 29.7 million and those issued outside the U.S. declined by 1% to 10.4 million and corporate cards remained flat at 7.1 million.

This conservatism in card issuance helped to cut losses to $1.6 billion in 2010 from over $3.8 billion in 2009 on U.S. cards and to $390 million in 2010 from $1.2 billion in 2009 on cards issued outside US. While pushing cards-in-use numbers would have led to a rise in losses, we believe it would have been more than compensated by an increase in revenues from transaction fee, annual card membership fee and interest income on credit card debt. Moreover, as the economy recovers, this would have allowed American Express to expand its footprint, or market share.

Headwinds Looking Ahead

1) Impact of Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure ( CARD ) Act

Passed into law by the Obama Administration, this law ensures greater disclosure to cardmembers among other things. In particular, the card company must notify card holders 45 days prior to changes in interest rates. As a result, the cardmembers can schedule their payments accordingly leading to either (i) sooner settlement of loans in case of an impending rise in rates, or (ii) a delayed settlement of loans in case of a decline in interest rates. In both cases, a card company could lose from greater transparency.

2) A Decline in Transaction Fee

American Express leverages its affluent card member base to charge the retailer a higher commission on the transactions. American Express's transaction fee has faced much resentment amongst the sellers, which has restricted the acceptance of American Express cards compared to Visa and MasterCard. The transaction fee on American Express cards has reduced from over 2.23% in 2005 to current levels of around 2% and given the increasingly competitive landscape, the trend is expected to continue well into the future.

You can drag the graph below to see the impact on stock price.

You can see a detailed analysis of our $49.60 Trefis price estimate of American Express' stock here .

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

This article appears in: Investing , Investing Ideas , Stocks , US Markets
Referenced Symbols: AXP , CARD , COF , MA , V

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