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Massive Change Could Be Coming at American Express Company

In less than a week American Express (NYSE: AXP  ) will announce how well it fared in the most recent quarter. And there is another thing to watch that could forever change the course of its business -- as well as Visa (NYSE: V  ) and MasterCard (NYSE: MA  ) -- as we know it.

The thing to monitor
Nearly four years ago -- in October 2010 -- the Justice Department sued American Express, Visa, and MasterCard in an effort "to eliminate rules restricting price competition."

The DOJ asserted practices established by the three major credit card companies "prevent merchants from offering consumers discounts, rewards and information about card costs, ultimately resulting in consumers paying more for their purchases."

When the release was announced it was revealed Visa and MasterCard had settled with the Justice Department. While there was no actual payment that stemmed from it, the two firms agreed to provide merchants who accept their cards the option offer discounts as well as other incentives to customers in an effort to "encourage ... less costly" payment options.

But American Express was no so easily lured, and last week it officially entered into court to fight the matter.

The reason for the fight
In an open op-ed, Ken Chenault, the CEO of American Express, revealed why the company had chosen to fight the case when it was first announced. In it, he began by saying:

The government remedy does nothing for consumers. And, whatever its intention, the Justice Department is heading down a path that eventually leads to less competition, not more.

Without diving too far into the details, Chenault argued the move by the Justice Department would do nothing to benefit consumers -- what Justice Department alleges the suit will do -- and may result in them being forced to pay with a card that offers fewer benefits and protections. He went on to say:

The net result of this "bait and switch" is an unhappy customer who was pushed to use a backup card that didn't provide the customer service, buyer protection, benefits or rewards that he or she prefers. Only in Washington could that be called a consumer benefit.

In addition Chenault highlighted the broader payment industry is dominated by Visa and MasterCard. At last count $4.1 trillion was spent on credit, debit, and prepaid cards in the U.S. and just 15% of that was done using American Express. As a result, almost all American Express customers have Visa and MasterCard options, but a much smaller percentage of those with a MasterCard or Visa card have an American Express card.

All of that is to say, Chanault felt as a result of the case, "the Justice Department is supporting bad policy and disguising it with vague promises of consumer benefit."

The reason for investors to watch
Chanault concluded his remarks by noting:

It's never easy to take on a long, costly battle with the government, but what's at stake are some important issues: consumer choice, free market competition and the ability to deliver superior products and services to our customers. This is a fight worth fighting.

All of this is undoubtedly true, but what's also at stake here are important issues to investors as well.

It's well known American Express charges higher fees per transaction to merchants in order to provide the vast array of benefits it offers to its consumers. If the government rules against American Express, a merchant would be free to pressure a customer to use another payment option.

It would restrict the competition in the payments industry, and provide a tangible benefit to Visa and MasterCard but ultimately hurt American Express despite the reality their cardholders often spend more at merchants.

One can easily drift into thinking what possible negative consequences for American Express would be if it is in fact ruled against. At best there may be a fine leveled against it, at worst policies could be established which ultimately may restrict the number of sales made on its cards.

As a result, investors need to continue to watch the progress of these allegations to see where they progress, because this case could change the payment landscape as we know it.

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Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On July 23, 2014, at 4:14 PM, yourbestfriend wrote:

    I like Ken Chennault. I like American Express (I've owned a boatload of AXP and have made a big multiple on it over the past decade and a half). But his assessment is false. The features he's attributing to his card are things the customer is paying for. If the customer wishes to keep those features engaged, it's up to the customer to pay to keep them engaged. If other customers wish to pay less for their lunch and give up those features, they should be given that opportunity. By keeping the cost of the features hidden in the cost of the lunch, consumers do not get an opportunity to compete card issuers against each other. People who use American Express cards get American Express features, and people who use Visa or Mastercard pay more and get less (a lot less, imo) from their cards. Simple microeconomics. Ken should know that and should have exhibited his knowledge here.

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Patrick Morris

After a few stints in banking and corporate finance, Patrick joined the Motley Fool as a writer covering the financial sector. He's scaled back his everyday writing a bit, but he's always happy to opine on the latest headline news surrounding Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett and all things personal finance.

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