The iconic American Express Centurion Card, made from anodized titanium, etched by laser, with limitless spending capability and dedicated concierge service commands a premium annual fee that runs in the thousands and has remained elusive for all but the privileged few individuals. So it is with great irony that American Express shares are currently trading at a discount, available to any investor who is looking for a bargain.
Founded in 1850 as an express mail business, today “Amex” is a global credit and charge card issuer and payments network. Last year over US$1 trillion was spent on more than 100 million American Express-badged cards around the world. In the US, where around two thirds of Amex billings take place, the company operates the third largest card network behind giants Visa and Mastercard, capturing a quarter of the market for spending on plastic.
Such enormous scale belies Amex’s unique asset: its closed loop network. Lured by a superior rewards program and strong brand Amex’ card member base is both large and valuable. On average, an Amex customer spends more than triple a Visa or Mastercard cardholder each year and knows they can use their card with almost every merchant they want to. At the same time, merchants are willing to accept Amex cards and pay more for the privilege in order to access such important potential customers. This creates a self-reinforcing spend-centric cycle, a “chicken-and-egg” scenario that is almost impossible to replicate and becomes even more impenetrable as it expands.