American Express profit fell 15% on virus impact

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — American Express said its fourth-quarter profits dropped by 15% from a year ago, as the global pandemic kept cardmembers from dining out, traveling and entertaining.

The New York-based company said it earned a profit of $1.42 billion, or $1.76 per share, down from a profit of $1.69 billion, or $2.03 a share, in the same period a year earlier. The results were much better than what analysts had predicted, on average looking for AmEx to earn $1.31 a share.

The coronavirus pandemic struck at the heart of AmEx’s business model last year. AmEx cardmembers — often the well-to-do and corporate clients — stopped traveling, stopped shopping, weren’t able to go see concerts and shows, and stopped dining out. For corporations, travel expenses plunged last year since most workers who would travel for work switched to home offices and Zoom meetings.

“While we are still seeing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on our business, trends continued to steadily improve in the fourth quarter,” said Stephen J. Squeri, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Discount revenue in the quarter dropped 19% from a year earlier. Discount revenue is the amount of money AmEx makes every time its credit or charge cards are used, charging a fee to the merchant per transaction. The average American Express cardmember spent $4,549 on their cards last quarter, down from $5,237.

AmEx was able to offset some of that decline because, on the other hand, fewer customers used their reward points to redeem them for travel and entertainment. So while revenues declined, so did expenses.

Like other financial services companies, AmEx had to set aside money early in the pandemic to cover potentially bad loans – in AmEx’s case, from thousands of cardmembers who were struggling to pay their credit card balances. AmEx was able to release some of that money this quarter, as the economy has improved and there’s been less risk of cardmembers defaulting. That resulted in a $111 million benefit to AmEx’s results this quarter; in the year-ago quarter, the company set aside $1.02 billion to cover potential loan losses.