AMERICAN EXPRESS 4TH QUARTER PROFITS PLUNGE 72%

BY JUAN LAGORIO

NEW YORK – American Express Co said on Monday its fourth-quarter earnings tumbled 72 percent due to higher loan losses, lower customer spending and a strengthening U.S. dollar, but results beat expectations as it slashed costs.

The company’s shares rose 2.5 percent in after-market trading after falling 5 percent when the market was open. Revenue fell 11 percent, and the company cautioned that 2009 would be a tough year.

“This is one of the most difficult operating environments we have seen in decades. The housing market has continued to deteriorate, unemployment has risen significantly, and retailers have seen some of the biggest declines in many years,” said Kenneth Chenault, chief executive of American Express, in a conference call with analysts.

The company offered a guarded forecast for this year. “Card member spending in this environment is likely to remain very soft and we continue to expect past due loans and write-offs to rise from current levels”, said Dan Henry, chief financial officer of American Express.

In the fourth quarter, earnings from continuing operations sank to $238 million, or 21 cents per diluted share, from $858 million, or 74 cents per diluted share, in the same quarter last year.

The latest results topped the average analyst expectation of 9 cents per share for earnings from continuing operations, according to Reuters Estimates.

Net income, including discontinued operations, fell to $172 million, or 15 cents per diluted share, from $831 million, or 72 cents per diluted share, a year earlier.

The company, struggling with mounting credit losses and higher financing costs, became a bank holding company in November to get access to $3.39 billion in taxpayer money under the U.S. Treasury’s $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program.

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REVENUES SINK, CREDIT LOSSES JUMP

Consolidated revenue fell 11 percent to $6.5 billion, hit by higher financial costs and lower travel commissions and fees. In addition, managed loans fell 7 percent to $72 billion, as the company cut back lending to cushion credit losses.

Average cardmember spending tumbled 13 percent in the United States — the company’s main source of revenue — and 16 percent in the international markets as the global economy deteriorated.

“The business in terms of spending and credit quality was pretty weak. Revenues were shockingly weak,” said John Williams, an analyst at Macquarie Research. “AmEx for years and years called itself a spend center business and when spending is weak the business results are going to be weak. The effect of falling spending is difficult results for the company.”

U.S. net charge-offs — a measure of bad loan write-offs — jumped to 6.7 percent in the fourth quarter from 5.9 percent in the third quarter, and is expected to keep rising in 2009 as Americans struggled with a deepening recession and the highest U.S. unemployment rate since 1993.

Provisions for loan losses fell 3 percent to $1.4 billion, as American Express said the year-ago results included a significant credit charge, but analysts expressed concern about whether the company was setting enough money aside to cover losses.

“The magnitude of their reserves seems to imply that they don’t expect things to get worse, but their comments indicate they do think things are going to get worse,” Williams said.

American Express cut expenses aggressively — cardmember rewards expenses fell 39 percent and marketing and promotion expenditure fell 35 percent — as the bank looks to save $1.8 billion this year.

American Express shares rose to $15.58 in after-hours trading after closing at $15.20, down 5 percent on the New York Stock Exchange. The company’s stock has fallen 14 percent in 2009.

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