American Express Poised for Big Growth

In 2013, American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) was the second best performing stock on the Dow, gaining nearly 58% for the year through taking advantage of increased household wealth and consumer confidence. In addition, American Express doubled their profit in the fourth quarter as affluent customers spent more during the holidays while defaulting on fewer payments. 

As you look at these impressive numbers, you have to ask yourself, "Did I miss the boat?" According to forecasts from the World Bank, this ride should continue for a while.

January 14: World Bank raises its growth forecasts

For the first time in quite a while, the World Bank doesn't see an immediate ominous cloud lurking ready to destroy our entire global economy. Instead, it's just a little overcast - which is OK, compared to the last five years.

The report states that 2014 should bring about a growing U.S. economy, a Europe that has bottomed out, and an invigorated Japan. In short, the developed world will be making a comeback: the forecast for the wealthiest nations was raised from 2% to 2.2%. 

Global growth is forecast to rise to 3.2% in 2014, from last year's 2.4%. Even more encouraging, this level of growth should be maintained until 2016. 

According to the President of the World Bank, Jim Yong Kim, "The performance of advanced economies is gaining momentum, and this should support stronger growth in developing countries,"

To get specific, how is the good ole U.S.A looking? The Bank expects 2014 growth to be in the area of 2.8%.  

How does all this help American Express?

As mentioned before, American Express had a very good 4th quarter. But what should make investors optimistic about 2014 is the card company's correlation to GDP growth.

American Express says billings tend to increase by 4.5 times relative to economic growth. Nomura Analyst Bill Carcache wrote that if 2014 GDP growth comes in at 2.7%, American Express billings growth could reach 12.2% for 2014 – that's up from 7.8% last year. Mr. Carcache went on to write, "We continue to view American Express as a levered play on GDP growth and still believe consensus estimates are too low." 

Take into account the World Bank's updated forecast for the U.S., and billings growth could reach 12%. According to American Express management, billings are their greatest driver of revenue.

Mr. Carcache also reiterated American Express as a Buy rating with a price target of $105. Analysts are forecasting that American Express will earn $5.46 per share in 2014, up 11% from last year's earnings of $4.91.

Another plus for American Express is that the three specific geographic regions mentioned by the World Bank report as driving growth for the developed world-the United States, Europe, and Japan- are all a part of American Express' three largest areas for total revenue according to their 2012 Annual Report. 

A better global outlook should be good all around – especially for this industry. The movement to a more cashless economy should stay on track with higher economic growth in the developed and emerging markets.

And a little competitive piece of mind

American Express numbers look good. Global economic numbers look steady and promising for the next couple of years. However, some investors maybe thinking back to the Target breach that took place in December and whether or not that impacts American Express users.

The answer is no. American Express, unlike its open-loop network competitors Visa (NYSE: V  ) and MasterCard (NYSE: MA  ) works on a closed-looped network where it takes on the role of card issuer and merchant bank. Both Visa and MasterCard depend on the buyer and merchant having their own banks and the interaction between them.

There are less actors in the closed process meaning that there are less opportunities for security breaches. American Express has one of the industry's lowest fraud rates because its single fraud screen is more effective, precisely due to this network. 

Nomura concluded that, "AXP has faced minimal exposure to Target data breach" and is "well-positioned to deal with the elevated risk of fraudulent activity that we're seeing."

What the World Bank and many other economists are forecasting is that the developed world is on its way back to recovery. And as this climb takes place, American Express is well-situated to take advantage of it. 


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