American Express Now a Commercial Bank

By Mike Caggeso
Associate Editor
Money Morning

American Express Co. (AXP) today (Tuesday) won approval from the U.S. Federal Reserve to become a commercial bank, giving the credit card titan a crucial lifeline as the risk of defaults runs higher in the slowing global market.

American Express won the Fed’s approval unanimously and without the application’s standard 30-day waiting period because of “the unusual and exigent circumstances affecting the financial markets,” according to a Fed statement.

High unemployment and a severe drought of credit are plaguing the consumer market, causing them to spend less. Worse, it’s caused many to be unable to pay existing debts such as credit cards.

October was the first month in 15 years that credit card companies weren’t able to sell bonds backed by customer payments, Bloomberg reported. And this upgrade to commercial bank status allows American Express – the fourth-largest U.S. credit card company – access to government funds.

American Express becomes the third major institution to switch over to a commercial bank in as many months, joining Goldman Sachs Group, Inc. (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS). 

In the past year, American Express has lost nearly half its market value as it posted four consecutive quarters of declining profit.

Mixed Analyst Reactions

Oppenheimer Holdings, Inc. (OPY) analyst Meredith Whitney said that the approval will give American Express a more stable mix of funding and allow it to cut borrowing costs.

“Whether institutions like it or not, the only prudent thing to do is assume a protracted worst-case funding scenario," Whitney said in a note to investors, Reuters reported.

While she maintained her “perform” rating on American Express’ stock, she said that “concerns for American Express and other consumer lending-related stocks continue to be worse-than-expected credit losses.”

Scott Valentin of Friedman, Billings, Ramsey Group, Inc. (FBR) wasn’t as generous, the Associated Press reported. While maintaining his “underperform” rating and $22 target price for American Express stock, Valentin said the company’s earnings and model “are under severe stress in the current environment.”

News and Related Story Links:

  • Associated Press:
    Ahead of the Bell: American Express