American Express (NYSE:AXP) delivered strong results in the second quarter of 2014, as its earnings per share jumped 13% relative to last year to stand at $1.43. It topped analyst expectations, and while it did see a partial gain resulting from the spinoff of one of its businesses into a joint venture, it still steadily performed on all cylinders.
And after examining the remarks of the company's CFO, Jeffrey Campbell, as the results were discussed, there are five things investors need to know about the performance of American Express in the second quarter.
1. Business as usual
We believe that our underlying operating performance continues to demonstrate the strength and flexibility of our business model. And you will recognize some familiar themes in the quarter, including higher spending by our card members, modest growth in the loan portfolio, credit indicators at or near historical lows, disciplined control of operating expenses, and a strong balance sheet that enabled us to return a substantial amount of capital to shareholders in the form of share repurchases and dividends over the past year.
To start, it's important to remember more often than not, quarterly earnings results -- particularly in the case of massive companies like American Express -- will often not have revolutionary insights or reveal dramatic changes about the underlying business.
And that was certainly the case with this quarter for American Express, because while there was change -- and we'll get to that -- by and large, it's critical to see it foundational operations are continuing to impressively hum along, even if it isn't necessarily exciting.
Does this mean we shouldn't track and carefully analyze those earnings? Of course not. But just because something exciting didn't occur doesn't mean we should think it was a bad quarter. In fact, I would argue, knowing the success America has had through the decades, seeing "familiar themes" is exactly what we should hope for.
2. New initiatives are performing well
I'll also note that the new EveryDay product has performed well, relative to our expectations, since its launch a few months ago. But it is, of course, far too early for the product to have any meaningful impact on our overall levels of loan growth.
Having said that, there were smaller bits of news that are important to be aware of, and this is certainly one of them. In February of this year, American Express announced it would be offering a no-fee version of its cards called the EverDay card in an effort to "be a more inclusive and welcoming brand."
Although these efforts will not have an impact to shareholders for years and years to come, laying a solid foundation over the first few months is encouraging news, and could indicate while we may be years away, these efforts could have a sizable impact.
3. Credit improved to record levels, but that isn't the exact goal
[O]ur credit metrics are near or at historical low levels. Worldwide, lending write-off and delinquency rates decreased in the quarter, with our delinquency rate reaching an all-time low at 1%. As we've said previously, our goal is not to have the lowest possible write-off rate, but is instead to achieve the best returns on our portfolio. Therefore, we would continue to expect that lending write-off rates will increase somewhat from these low levels, at some point.
Knowing the delinquency rate -- of the loans that it has issued, the number which are currently not making payments -- of American Express hit an "all-time low at 1%," and was less than half of the industry average of 2.2%, it is easy to think Campbell would be ecstatic.
Yet it's important to see what American Express hopes for is that it would instead be achieving "the best returns" possible. While this can undoubtedly lead to risky behavior and should be carefully monitored, the fact its CFO desires profitability that is ultimately delivered to its shareholders is an encouraging sign.
4. Innovation is here
We also continue to be at the forefront of connecting consumers and merchants in new and innovative ways through digital capabilities. Our recent partnership with Uber, which creates an elegant seamless experience for US card members to earn or redeem membership rewards points within the Uber mobile app, is the latest example of how we are leveraging unique technology to create value for merchants and consumers. While it is still early days for many of our digital initiatives, we are excited about the new capabilities we are developing in this space.
With all the talk surrounding the future of the payments industry and what it could look like in the coming years --including the remarks from the American Express CEO, Ken Chenault -- many have begun to wonder about what the future may behold.
So, to learn that American Express is actively pursuing opportunities to stay at the forefront of the industry, even if they are simple things like ensuring its cardholders can use rewards at other companies, means it is doing all it can to ensure it will remain in its commanding market position.
5. The results of the legal battle are months and months away
The trial is expected to end later this quarter, and will be followed by the issuance of a decision, which could take several months or longer to complete. There will then likely be a lengthy appeals process. As much as we might like to, I don't think it's appropriate or beneficial for us to offer color commentary on any of the specific testimony. We will make our argument where it matters, in the courtroom. We believe that our legal defense is strong, but ultimately, it will be up to the courts to decide.
Lurking in the shadows of American Express are the questions surrounding what the ultimate verdict of the Justice Department's lawsuit against it -- related to its pricing of transactions -- will be, and what the possible impact could be to the company. But the reality that the lawsuit was first announced in October 2010 and is still a long way off reveals the true depth of what is at stake.
For the time being, this isn't something that should guide an investor's decision, but it is certainly one thing to keep an eye on.