American Express (NYSE:AXP) is down some 35% in the past year, and probably for good reason: Not only has consumer spending become the whipping boy of the economy, but the ability of consumers to repay their prior lavishness takes a step back as the economy wobbles. So is all hope lost for this credit card behemoth? Here's some quick information that might come in handy when analyzing American Express.

Metric

Trailing 12 months

Total revenue

$29 billion

Total net income

$3.5 billion

Net income per share

$3.02

Dividends paid per share

$0.69

Current share price*

$38

*As of 9/5/08

Unlike Visa (NYSE:V) or Mastercard (NYSE:MA), AmEx provides the capital involved in the credit card process, so it's vulnerable to the credit crunch. In 2007, AmEx's net write-off rate stood at 4.2%. Compare that to Capital One's (NYSE:COF) charge-off rate of 4.31% and Discover Financial (NYSE:DFS) at 4.08%, and it's clear the whole industry is muddling through a rough patch. And it's only gotten worse since the end of 2007. So what makes AmEx stand out?

Metric

Most Recent Quarter

Book value per share

$10.58

Return on equity

31.1%

Debt as a percentage of total capital

86.2%

Percentage of receivables 90 days past due

3%

Total cards in circulation

90.1 million

Average spending per card

$3,199

Average fee per card

$34

There're two distinguishing factors riding in its favor. One, its brand name has become a sought-after symbol of one of its target markets: the affluent. It's probably the only card company that consumers want to use. In a market that's fiercely competitive and essentially commoditized, you can't discount how beneficial that is. Two, it doesn't have all its eggs in credit cards: it's also a leader in charge cards as well as travel services (like travelers checks.) Charge cards differ from credit cards in that the balance has to be paid in full every month. Why is this important? Because it doesn't let consumers get carried away and max their cards out when the economy is booming, only to have to curtail their spending when the economy slows. The quicker customers can pay off their balance, the quicker they can resume spending ... which is what this business is all about.

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