Will American Express Help You Retire Rich?

Now more than ever, a comfortable retirement depends on secure, stable investments. Unfortunately, the right stocks for retirement won't just fall into your lap. In this series, I look at 10 measures to show what makes a great retirement-oriented stock.

Nowadays, credit cards are a dime a dozen. But back in the day, having a card from American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) really meant something, with the panache that came from exclusivity and rarity. Now, of course, the card industry has gotten a lot more competitive, and now, mobile payment systems threaten to make old-fashioned plastic a thing of the past. Can the maker of the card you shouldn't leave home without stay relevant? Below, we'll revisit how American Express does on our 10-point scale.

The right stocks for retirees
With decades to go before you need to tap your investments, you can take greater risks, weighing the chance of big losses against the potential for mind-blowing returns. But as retirement approaches, you no longer have the luxury of waiting out a downturn.

Sure, you still want good returns, but you also need to manage your risk and protect yourself against bear markets, which can maul your finances at the worst possible time. The right stocks combine both of these elements in a single investment.

When scrutinizing a stock, retirees should look for:

  • Size. Most retirees would rather not take a flyer on unproven businesses. Bigger companies may lack their smaller counterparts' growth potential, but they do offer greater security.
  • Consistency. While many investors look for fast-growing companies, conservative investors want to see steady, consistent gains in revenue, free cash flow, and other key metrics. Slow growth won't make headlines, but it will help prevent the kind of ugly surprises that suddenly torpedo a stock's share price.
  • Stock stability. Conservative retirement investors prefer investments that move less dramatically than typical stocks, and they particularly want to avoid big losses. These investments will give up some gains during bull markets, but they won't fall as far or as fast during bear markets. Beta measures volatility, but we also want a track record of solid performance as well.
  • Valuation. No one can afford to pay too much for a stock, even if its prospects are good. Using normalized earnings multiples helps smooth out one-time effects, giving you a longer-term context.
  • Dividends. Most of all, retirees look for stocks that can provide income through dividends. Retirees want healthy payouts now and consistent dividend growth over time -- as long as it doesn't jeopardize the company's financial health.

With those factors in mind, let's take a closer look at American Express.

Factor

What We Want to See

Actual

Pass or Fail?

Size Market cap > $10 billion $63.7 billion Pass
Consistency Revenue growth > 0% in at least four of five past years 4 years Pass
  Free cash flow growth > 0% in at least four of past five years 3 years Fail
Stock stability Beta < 0.9 1.82 Fail
  Worst loss in past five years no greater than 20% (63.7%) Fail
Valuation Normalized P/E < 18 15.45 Pass
Dividends Current yield > 2% 1.4% Fail
  5-year dividend growth > 10% 4.3% Fail
  Streak of dividend increases >= 10 years 1 year Fail
  Payout ratio < 75% 17.1% Pass
       
  Total score   4 out of 10

Source: S&P Capital IQ. Total score = number of passes.

Since we looked at American Express last year, the company has lost a point. Despite the drop, though, the shares are up more than 10% in the past year as conditions for credit cards have generally improved.

AmEx is an interesting hybrid. On one hand, it runs a highly successful card network, just as MasterCard (NYSE: MA  ) and Visa (NYSE: V  ) have put together. Yet unlike those two rivals, AmEx also issues its own cards, retaining credit risk and competing against Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) and other issuers of MasterCard and Visa cards. That credit risk led to some major declines during the financial crisis as delinquency rates and defaults rose dramatically.

But the future for AmEx and its peers appears to be in electronic payments. With initiatives including an electronic wallet product and prepaid card offerings, AmEx is stepping up to compete in a way it failed to do with the debit card market. With a prepaid card offered through Wal-Mart, AmEx is trying to establish itself as a brand for underserved lower-income customers. In addition, its partnership with Zynga (Nasdaq: ZNGA  ) gives it an interesting entry into social gaming, albeit with a virtual-cash twist whose success is still in doubt.

For retirees and other conservative investors, American Express offers a minimal dividend, with volatile shares and a valuation that, while not terribly expensive, isn't particularly cheap. All told, it's hard to recommend AmEx without either a pullback or a more extensive boost in its dividend. That may come in time, but for now, you should probably give AmEx a pass for your retirement portfolio.

Keep searching
Finding exactly the right stock to retire with is a tough task, but it's not impossible. Searching for the best candidates will help improve your investing skills, and teach you how to separate the right stocks from the risky ones.

If you really want to retire rich, no one stock will get the job done. Instead, you need to know how to prepare for your golden years. The Motley Fool's latest special report will give you all the details you need to get a smart investing plan going, plus it reveals three smart stocks for a rich retirement. But don't waste another minute -- click here and read it today.

Add American Express to My Watchlist, which will aggregate our Foolish analysis on it and all your other stocks.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. The Fool owns shares of Bank of America. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Visa, creating a diagonal call position in Wal-Mart, and writing a covered strangle position in American Express. 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 Fool has a disclosure policy.


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