Does American Express stand up to Visa and MasterCard?

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How do MasterCard (NYSE: MA) and Visa (NYSE: V) compare against the old stalwart American Express (NYSE: AXP)?

Unlike both Visa and MasterCard, American Express is not just a payment network.  American Express has a large amount of revenue coming from consumer credit and loans, which can expose investors to some financial risk.

In terms of transactions, how does American Express compare to its major competitors?

<table> <tbody> <tr> <td rowspan="2"> <p> </p> </td> <td rowspan="2"> <p>Q3 Total Cards</p> <p>(Millions)</p> </td> <td rowspan="2"> <p>Q3 Total Transactions</p> <p>(Millions)</p> </td> <td colspan="2"> <p>Q3 Gross Dollar volume (Billions)</p> </td> <td rowspan="2"> <p>Average Dollar Volume per Card</p> <p> </p> </td> <td rowspan="2"> <p>Average Transactions per Card.</p> </td> <td rowspan="2"> <p>Average Dollar Volume per Transaction</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>Worldwide</p> </td> <td> <p>US</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>Visa</p> </td> <td> <p>2032</p> </td> <td> <p>20,532</p> </td> <td> <p>$487</p> </td> <td> <p>$521</p> </td> <td> <p>$496</p> </td> <td> <p>10</p> </td> <td> <p>$49</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>MasterCard</p> </td> <td> <p>1859</p> </td> <td> <p>8679</p> </td> <td> <p>$628</p> </td> <td> <p>$290</p> </td> <td> <p>$494</p> </td> <td> <p>4.7</p> </td> <td> <p>$106</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>American Express</p> </td> <td> <p>101.4</p> </td> <td> <p>-</p> </td> <td> <p>$146.9</p> </td> <td> <p>$73.2</p> </td> <td> <p>$3725</p> </td> <td> <p>-</p> </td> <td> <p>$2170</p> </td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

American Express has significantly fewer cards in issue than the other two providers, but it does have a dollar volume per card about 650% larger than Visa. American Express also has a significantly higher dollar volume per transaction. This figure includes loans and transactions from credit cards.

Revenue Composition

Unlike both Visa and MasterCard, American Express offers customers credit. Visa and MasterCard only offer a payment network; as a result, American Express has significantly higher revenues from interest repayments.

<table> <tbody> <tr> <td> <p>US$ in Millions</p> </td> <td> <p>Discount Revenue</p> </td> <td> <p>Net Card Fees</p> </td> <td> <p>Other Commission and Fees</p> </td> <td> <p>Other Revenues</p> </td> <td> <p>Net Interest Income</p> </td> <td> <p>Q3 Total Revenue</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>American Express</p> </td> <td> <p>5058</p> </td> <td> <p>465</p> </td> <td> <p>581</p> </td> <td> <p>577</p> </td> <td> <p>1181</p> </td> <td> <p>7285</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>Visa</p> </td> <td> <p>1264</p> </td> <td> <p>1062</p> </td> <td> <p>796</p> </td> <td> <p>172</p> </td> <td rowspan="2"> <p> </p> </td> <td> <p>3294</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>MasterCard</p> </td> <td> <p>908</p> </td> <td> <p>763</p> </td> <td> <p>630</p> </td> <td> <p>294</p> </td> <td> <p>2595</p> </td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

Discount Revenue represents revenue earned from fees charged to merchants with whom the Company has entered into a card acceptance agreement for processing card member transactions.

Due to the different nature of AXP’s business, revenues become difficult to compare to both V and MA.

American Express's total revenues come in about 100% higher than Visa’s. The reason for this is the high discount revenue, brought about by the higher average dollar volume. There is also a large contribution to total revenue from interest received from consumer credit and loans - an income stream both V and MA do not have.

Finanical Risks

One of the main problems with American Express' business model is the financial liabilities the company takes on through lending to customers. Although this can be a high return business, in tough economic times it can also be a very risky one.

In Q3 2012 AXP made a provision for financial losses of just under $500 million, or 7% of total Q3 revenue. However, if we look back to Q1 2009, AXP provisioned for losses of about $1,500 million, or 31% of total Q1 2009 revenue.

As a result of these loss provisions, AXP has a lower operating and profit margin than the rest of the industry

<table> <tbody> <tr> <td> <p> </p> </td> <td> <p>Operating Margin</p> </td> <td> <p>Profit Margin</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>Industry Average</p> </td> <td> <p>29.7%</p> </td> <td> <p>31%</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>American Express</p> </td> <td> <p>15.1%</p> </td> <td> <p>23.76%</p> </td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

 Is American Express better value than its competitors? 

<table> <tbody> <tr> <td> <p> </p> </td> <td> <p>Historic P/E</p> </td> <td> <p>Forward P/E</p> </td> <td> <p>EPS Growth Next Year</p> </td> <td> <p>EPS Growth 5-Yr Average</p> </td> <td> <p>PEG</p> </td> <td> <p>Yield</p> </td> <td> <p>Cash Flow per Share</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>Industry Average</p> </td> <td> <p>34.10</p> </td> <td> <p>16.5</p> </td> <td> <p>13.2%</p> </td> <td> <p>49%</p> </td> <td> <p>1.5</p> </td> <td> <p>0.9</p> </td> <td> <p>$10.5</p> </td> </tr> <tr> <td> <p>American Express</p> </td> <td> <p>13.5</p> </td> <td> <p>12.6</p> </td> <td> <p>6%</p> </td> <td> <p>8.48%</p> </td> <td> <p>2.1</p> </td> <td> <p>1.4</p> </td> <td> <p>$8.85</p> </td> </tr> </tbody> </table>

Compared to its competitors, American Express does look under valued on a P/E basis. I believe this is due to the slow growth rates. Due to AXP’s loans and credit division 5-yr growth has been slow, what with the losses incurred during the finical crisis. This trend is continuing, and is only just starting to recover with the rest of the economy. As a result AXP has a slow forward growth rate compared to the rest of the industry. This slow growth rate, coupled with a comparatively low P/E, gives it a PEG ratio of 2.1, higher than the rest of the industry. Lastly, American Express has a lower free cash flow than the rest of the industry.

Debt

The most important point of this comparison concerns debt. While both Visa and MasterCard have positive growing cash balances, AXP does not. In fact, AXP has a total debt to equity ratio of 0.4, or 40% of shareholder equity.

Summary

In summary, American Express has a different business model to Visa and MasterCard. Due to its involvement in consumer credit, it is more exposed to financial risk and has been struggling with the recent slowdown in consumer spending. American Express also has less international exposure than both of its competitors.

Most importantly AXP has a higher revenue than both MA and V, but this does not translate into free cash flow. However, AXP does have the highest yield in the group.

So even though both Visa and MasterCard look more expensive than American Express right now, I believe they offer significantly more future growth and the possibility for larger shareholder returns.


RupertHargreav has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of MasterCard. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend American Express Company and Visa. 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. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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