A Bit of History From American Express' Balance Sheet

When American Express CEO Ken Chenault was asked about the business opportunity in prepaid cards, he took analysts in the audience through a walk down memory lane.

In the late 1800s, American Express was just another express mail company. It made money moving stuff from A to B. It wasn't until it started moving money that it became a financial behemoth. The traveler's cheque is what put Amex on the road to becoming what it is today.

Traveler's cheques were enormously profitable. Nearly immune from competition -- it was a winner-take-all business, since people only want cheques that are redeemable in the most places -- American Express made a fortune selling traveler's cheques to the world.

American Express double dipped on the product. First, it collected a fee for each traveler's cheque it issued. Secondly, because of the delay between the sale and redemption of each cheque, American Express effectively borrowed billions of dollars at a negative interest rate.

As best as I can tell, sales of the cheque peaked in the year 2000. (American Express excitedly described its growing business selling cheques over the Internet in its filings around the turn of the century.) Average balances apparently peaked in 1999, when it last reported average outstandings of $6.2 billion earning a whopping 8.8% tax-equivalent yield. Later filings would show higher balances, but declining sales of traveler's cheques, likely due to the rise of Amex gift cards ("Gift Cheques") during the 2000s.

It's notable that the float generated by prepaid cards hasn't yet eclipsed the float from other (declining) products. Perhaps it's because prepaid customers are unlikely to carry large balances, given few prepaid cards pay interest as traditional bank accounts do. Or maybe it's because prepaid users load only what they intend to spend in a short period of time. It's likely a combination. It's hard to say.

What isn't hard to say, though, is that Amex has some work to do in the prepaid card industry. The infancy of the prepaid card is best encapsulated by the fact that the float it generates has yet to offset the declining float from a now-obsolete Amex product first introduced in 1891.

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Jordan Wathen has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends American Express. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days . We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy .

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