What: Shares of American Express (NYSE:AXP), one of the four largest credit and charge companies in the world, fell 13% in the first month of the new year, based on data from S&P Capital IQ, after delivering unimpressive fourth-quarter earnings results.
So what: For the quarter, American Express reported total revenue of $9.11 billion, up 7% from the year-ago quarter, as its net income climbed 11% to $1.4 billion. Adjusted profit per share saw the biggest boost of all, up 15% to $1.39 from $1.21 in Q4 2013. Comparably, these results were more or less in line with what Wall Street was expecting, but it was other aspects of AmEx's report that have investors concerned.
For example, expenses rose in a number of key categories, including the company's U.S. card services segment where expenses jumped 11% to $3.1 billion. A rise in expenses here could signify increasing competition for upper-income individuals. Internationally, total expenses rose 4%, or 10% when adjusted for foreign currency translation.
Also, AmEx announced plans to cut about 4,000 jobs in 2015. The company insists it's still hiring so this won't be a direct loss in employees, but it's clear that AmEx's rising expenses pushed the company to be proactive about tightening its wallet.
Now what: It's been a rough start to the year for the entire financial sector, so I can't blame investors for being displeased with AmEx's rising expenses or slightly slower credit growth.
However, there's still a lot to like here if you're assuming we're in a longer-term bull market. You see, American Express can double dip on the credit side as a lender and a payment processor, netting interest fees from its cardholders and processing fees from its merchants. In strong economic environments AmEx is capable of delivering superior growth to many of its peers. I'd suggest 5% growth from the U.S. in Q3 would certainly qualify as a strong growth environment.
Of course, a lot is going to depend on Europe and the U.S. dollar. Although currency exchange translation isn't a direct reflection of the health of AmEx's business model, it nonetheless is negatively affecting its top and bottom lines. Ongoing debt issues in Europe could also weigh down AmEx's international expansion.
At roughly 12 times forward earnings I'm certainly intrigued by American Express, especially with management's long-term target of an 8% growth rate. This company won't be without its occasional hiccups, but I do believe it has a better chance of upside than downside at this point in time.