American Express Outlook Improves on Recovery in Spending

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Founded in 1950, New York based American Express ( AXP ) is a leading global financial services company offering card payment products and travel-related services to consumers and businesses across the globe. It is now the third largest player in the US in terms of card transaction volumes, after Visa ( V ) and MasterCard ( MA ). It also competes with other financial institutions that have credit card services like Discover Financial ( DFS ) and Capital One ( COF ).

What differentiates American Express from MasterCard and Visa is its relatively more affluent customer base, which it maintains by offering generous benefits and reward programs. Since American Express brings higher spending consumers to merchants, it can charge a higher commission (known as the interchange fee) on sales. Also, unlike Visa and MasterCard, American Express only issues charge and credit card products but not debit cards, which have been gaining widespread acceptance over the past couple of years. With these critical differences in mind, we explore the opportunities that lie ahead for American Express in an evolving macroeconomic environment.

Our price estimate is $47.16 , which is just slightly higher than the current market price.

Impact of regulatory reforms

The Obama Administration in February 2010 passed the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act , or the CARD Act which enforces more disclosure about interest rates, caps on service fees, grace periods and also makes it difficult for people under the age of 21 to obtain cards. All this is expected to negatively impact the growth in the number of cards in use but lead to lower net write-off rates and defaults by card members.

The Durbin Amendment , enacted in July 2010, granted the Fed the power to control the levels of this fee. In December, the Fed enforced one such limit - 12 cents per debit card transaction. (Cap on Debit Card Interchange Fee is a Positive for American Express, Trefis, Jan 12′ 2011) While this adversely affects the two largest card payments-processing networks Visa and MasterCard, which also issue debit cards, we believe it presents upside opportunity for American Express as credit cards would gain prominence over debit cards, at least from the issuers' end.

Improving economic conditions

The macroeconomic conditions are improving in the US, albeit at a slow pace. The unemployment levels are still close to historical high levels but on a downward slope, declining from 9.8% in November 2010 to 9.4% in December 2010. Consumer spending has picked up and so have the corresponding card transactions.

Household purchases, which constitute about 70% of the economy, grew at 4.4% in December 2010, the highest since the first quarter of 2006. American Express' card delinquency rates (the proportion of outstanding balances past the due date to total balances) continues to decline month on month to 2.1% from 2.5% in the previous quarter. Charge-offs (the loans deemed uncollectible and hence, written-off) also declined from 5.2% to 4.4% over the same period. Improvements in macroeconomic conditions hint at more relaxed card-issuing criteria and higher credit limits.

If spending increases more than we currently forecast, this could improve our price estimate. Drag the trend line in the modifiable chart above to see the impact. For example, a 5% increase in annual spending in 2012 per customer translates to around a 2% improvement in our price estimate.

See our estimates for American Express.



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



This article appears in: Investing , Investing Ideas , Stocks , US Markets

Referenced Stocks: AXP , COF , DFS , MA , V

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