If you haven't heard, consumers are in the pits. Unemployment is on the rise. Fear is caked all over the market. A new poll finds two-thirds of Americans are scared. Heck, even the Russian oligarchs are falling into despair after choking on too much debt, reports The Wall Street Journal.

After years of relying on debt-laden lifestyles, reality is setting in for many. The results aren't pretty, as shown by American Express' (NYSE:AXP) third-quarter earnings.

American Express booked a profit of $815 million, or $0.70 per share, down 22% from the $1.07 billion, or $0.90 per share, earned in the same period last year. Net revenue climbed to $7.2 billion, up from $7 billion last year -- no complaints there.

The real whammy came from setting money aside to cover bad debts, with provisions for losses coming in at $1.4 billion, up 51% from the year before. In the U.S., net loan-write-offs totaled 5.9% -- nearly double the 3% rate of a year ago. Things aren't just getting bad, they're getting bad quickly.

Of course, all of this was to be expected. Shares gained almost 7% this morning after the results beat expectations -- these days, no one's expecting much more than an assurance that filing for bankruptcy protection isn't imminent. With shares still down 50% year to date, the agony has already been priced into American Express shares.

Does that mean it's time to buy?

Unlike rivals Visa (NYSE:V) and MasterCard (NYSE:MA), American Express finances its own transactions, meaning it's front and center to not only the slowdown in consumer spending, but also the chaos in credit markets. Regardless, average analyst estimates are still earnings of $2.62 per share in 2009, for a forward P/E ratio of less than 10.

Yes, if those earnings projections hold true, AmEx is undoubtedly a screaming value at these prices. Problem is, no one can accurately predict earnings in an environment where the fate of the global economy changes seemingly by the hour.

If you have the guts and the patience to hold a stock like American Express for several years, you'll almost certainly look back at today's prices as quite a gift. That's not to say the stock has bottomed. Hardly. But this company with a proven track record of stable earnings and a global card-lending franchise that is second to none will reward those who are patient enough to wait out this beast of an economic storm.

What are your thoughts? American Express holds a three-star rating in our 120,000-member Motley Fool CAPS community -- about as good as it gets for a financial company these days. Come on over to CAPS and tell everyone what you think. It won't cost you a dime.

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Fool contributor Morgan Housel doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this article. American Express is a Motley Fool Inside Value pick, and the Fool owns shares of American Express. The Fool has a disclosure policy.