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What American Express Management Sees Ahead for 2016

By Dan Caplinger – Jan 27, 2016 at 8:21AM

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The hard-hit card giant looks forward to better times ahead.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Last year was a tough one for American Express (AXP -2.09%), and even the company itself admitted that factors such as changing partnerships in co-branded cards with Costco (COST -1.40%) and others, a tougher regulatory environment, and a more competitive payment-network industry played a big role in its stock's poor performance last year. But the company still thinks that it has the opportunity to bounce back, and CEO Ken Chenault and his team recently talked to investors about how exactly American Express plans to rebound. Let's take a closer look at what American Express' leaders had to say.

"Let me acknowledge that the performance we're discussing today is not what we or you are accustomed to seeing from American Express, and that we're taking significant actions to change the trajectory of our business going forward." -- CEO Ken Chenault

American Express has built a strong reputation over the decades on consistent performance, so its stock's 25% drop in 2015 was an aberration. Although a far cry from the 64% hit that the stock took in 2008 during the financial crisis, Chenault treated 2015's declines with similar gravity, announcing plans to cut its costs substantially and eventually produce $1 billion in annual expense savings by the end of next year. In conjunction with growth initiatives, AmEx hopes that the impact on its bottom line will be enough to send shares back upward.

"Our performance continued to reflect healthy loan growth, strong card acquisitions, excellent credit performance, disciplined operating expense control, and the benefits of our strong capital position."-CFO Jeff Campbell

The good news from American Express' standpoint is that the fundamental conditions of its core business remain sound. The U.S. economy is strong, and AmEx's customers have remained creditworthy overall, with few delinquencies or losses stemming from the company's credit portfolio. In addition, American Express was smart enough to see the writing on the wall as far as potential downward pressures were concerned, and some of the moves it made in 2014 and 2015 anticipated the difficulties the card company is going through now.

"We leveraged our strong capital position to provide significant returns to shareholders and again returned over $5 billion of capital through buybacks and dividends during 2015, which reduced our average share count by 5%."-Campbell

American Express has also seen the value that its share-price weakness presents, jumping on the chance to buy back stock at what it perceives as a discount. The company's 2% dividend yield remains relatively lackluster, but it's well ahead of what its peers in the card industry are paying. Moreover, billions of dollars in buybacks have helped support earnings-per-share metrics, and the lower share count leaves investors who've stuck with American Express with potential greater participation in its rebound when it comes.

"We are now reporting the Costco portfolio as held-for-sale in a separate line on our balance sheet. ... We now expect there to be a sale and for that sale to close around mid-year 2016."-Campbell

American Express' relationship with Costco Wholesale has been a focal point among investors over the past year, and the announcement of the termination of the Costco partnership was devastating in the minds of many AmEx shareholders. Yet American Express is moving on, and its plans to divest itself of any remaining cardmembers indicate a willingness to look forward and focus on its new partnerships. Even with Costco having chosen rival Visa as the payment network behind its new branded card, American Express is confident that it can replace its lost business in time.

"We need to accelerate our efforts and we have a plan to do just that. It includes three priorities: accelerate revenue growth, reduce our expense base, and optimize our investments and continue to use our capital strength to create value for shareholders."-Chenault

American Express' overall strategic plan aims at bottom-line growth through greater sales, lower costs, and smart investments. That could take several forms, with Chenault pointing to the possibility of acquisitions as well as organic growth. In addition to improving its operational prowess, AmEx also hopes to use its relationships, technology, and data to find new ways to serve its clients. With the company having information not just on transactions but also on payment history of its cardmembers, American Express offers information that Visa and other card networks can't match.

American Express has fallen hard, but it thinks it can pick itself back up in 2016. If its executive team can make good on its plans, then AmEx stock could return to its winning ways this year and beyond.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Costco Wholesale. The Motley Fool recommends American Express. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

American Express Company Stock Quote
American Express Company
$134.91 (-2.09%) $-2.88
Costco Wholesale Corporation Stock Quote
Costco Wholesale Corporation
$472.27 (-1.40%) $-6.71

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