It's been a rough year for American Express (AXP -0.23%). The financial services company is dealing with the effects of drastically reduced consumer spending, and while the end may be in sight, it's a dot on the horizon. American Express stock is almost flat year to date, and there's a long road ahead toward growth.
But I'm never selling. Here's why.
Golden and platinum opportunities
American Express has a few unique features that make it stand out as a financial services company. One is that it acts as underwriter and processor for its own credit cards. That's different than Visa and Mastercard, which are payment processors and work together with banks to offer credit cards. That's why if you bank at Capital One Financial, you might have a Capital One Visa card.
American Express also has an affluent customer base with a focus on travel and leisure spending. Elite card holders gain privileges such as airport lounge entry and travel upgrades, and the company is a leader in rewards programs, offering members perks like exclusive events and a dinner concierge service. Some of these cards run a hefty annual fee -- up to $550 -- although the company has launched many new cards to appeal to a broader clientele. American Express makes a portion of revenue directly from card fees, and it has strong retention rates. In the third quarter, fee revenue increased 15% and accounted for almost 14% of the total.
Another element that makes the company attractive is its well-run operation. Despite the sales decline, American Express posted $1.30 in earnings per share. That was a 38% decrease over the prior year , but lower net write-offs meant that management lowered its reserve, leading to higher earnings. The company's common equity tier one ratio, which measures a company's capital against assets, grew to 13.9%, well above regulatory requirements.
All this is great. But the reason I won't be selling my American Express shares anytime soon is the company's focus on fintech, or financial technology. American Express may be 170 years old, but it's competing with the most exciting start-ups. And that gives it a long runway toward growth.
Established business, high potential
Companies like PayPal and Square share a lot of fintech limelight for their small business digital payment solutions. But American Express offers a broad suite of digital business solutions as well. CEO Stephen Squeri said that accounts payable automation volume more than doubled in the third quarter from the prior year as more small businesses assumed digital payments.
American Express had two important announcements during the third quarter related to fintech growth. One was the acquisition of Kabbage, a digital small-business lender, and the other was the go-ahead to operate in the Chinese payment market. The company is developing important relationships with digital payment providers in that region, which opens up access to a huge market.
This doesn't take away from American Express' bread and butter, which is credit cards. These actions are complementary to the company's main businesses, and they expand on what American Express does best. It's a marrying of the old and the new, bringing the pedigreed company into the digital age and giving it more ways to grow both its customers base and top line.
This focus means it will always be looking for new vistas, making it an excellent company to own, and one I don't plan on selling anytime soon.