American Express Overview

If any company deserves accolades for giving away a host of free offers to its customers, it’s the one that’s been doing it with credit cards for more than 60 years: American Express Co. (AXP). As one of the biggest credit card companies in the world, American Express generates revenue from transactions occurring at partner merchants, as well as through annual membership fees and interest income. Few other corporations can offer such a wide array of cash rewards, flights, theme park admissions, rental cars, hotel upgrades, and gift cards, all in exchange for absolutely nothing except buying stuff that you presumably would have bought anyway.

American Express doesn't even add your personal information to an invasive and all-encompassing database, in the manner of a tech giant. With all this giving, it might be difficult to surmise how it remains a profitable company, yet it delivered $36.1 billion in revenue and $3.1 billion in net income in 2020.

American Express was founded in 1850 as a freight forwarding and mail service company. Just a few years later, the company expanded into the financial services industry by offering a money order component. It launched its first charge cards in the 1950s and has since gone on to become one of the best-known credit card companies around the world. Besides credit card services, American Express also offers a host of other digital products.

On June 27, 2018, American Express benefited greatly from a Supreme Court ruling that stated that vendors can’t nudge customers toward using one type of debit or credit card over another. American Express typically charges higher fees, making it in merchants’ best interest to urge customers to use other cards.

As of June 30, 2021, American Express enjoyed a market cap of $165.23 billion. From 2019 to 2020, it saw a loss of revenues (net of interest expense) of $7.469 billion, or about 17%; for 2020 its return on average equity was 14.2%, down from 29.6% in 2019. The downturns were likely due to the deleterious financial effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How Does American Express Make Money?

American Express divides its operations into three large segments: Global Consumer Services Group (GCSG), Global Commercial Services (GCS), and Global Merchant and Network Services (GMNS). Broadly, the company earns revenue from two major sources: cardholders and merchant partners. American Express has a “spend-centric” model aimed at growing the number of overall transactions on its cards through special offers and relatively low fees.

Among cardholder revenues, American Express earns money from interest on outstanding balances, card fees, conversion fees, and more. However, the largest portion of the company’s revenue is discount revenue derived from transactions occurring at partner merchants around the world.

Key Takeaways

  • American Express earns most of its money through discount revenue, primarily represented by earnings on transactions that take place with partner merchants.
  • The company also generates revenue from cardholders through annual membership fees, interest on outstanding balances, conversion fees, and more.
  • American Express has a “spend-centric” model aimed at growing the number of overall transactions on its cards through special offers and relatively low fees.

American Express’s cardholder revenue

One of the main reasons the entire business model stays viable is that American Express has tens of millions of cardholders who don’t understand how it works, demonstrating this by failing to pay their bills on time. As with all credit cards, outstanding balances tend to generate massive interest and late fees, which spells larger revenues for the issuing company. We won’t explain the basics of how credit cards work right here, but the late payers make it easy for the rest of us to ride free. With 68.9 million American Express cardholders charging about $870.7 billion in 2020, that’s a lot of revolving credit.

There’s more to American Express’ strategy than just collecting interest from tardy customers. For one thing, the company is unusual among credit card issuers in that it charges cardholders just for the privilege of possessing many of its cards. Annual fees can reach up to $550 for American Express’ publicly available cards and $5,000 for its legendary, but very real, invitation-only Centurion card, which also has a one-time initiation fee of $10,000. The company does offer several free co-branded and entry-level cards.

American Express also generates revenue from other fees, including member delinquency fees and foreign currency conversions.

American Express’s merchant revenue

Most of American Express’ gross income is categorized as “discount revenue,” better known as “merchant fees.” Famously, American Express earns money by charging high merchant fees, higher than those its competitors charge (although in March of 2018 the company announced it would reduce its merchant fees to their lowest levels in 20 years, according to the Financial Times).

As to why merchants willingly accept American Express and thus pay the high fees, the average American Express cardholder is relatively wealthy, and it’s worth the increased fees to get said customers in the door. As the company’s self-perpetuating cycle of cachet allows it to charge merchants more than MasterCard Inc. (MA) and Visa Inc. (V) do, and because American Express’ comparably affluent cardholders buy more goods and services than their cohorts closer to the mean, it’s worthwhile for merchants to court American Express.

In the past, the majority of American Express cards charged no interest. You had to pay your bill in full every month or else the company would close your account and send a collection agency after you for the balance. This stands in blatant contrast with the modus operandi of other credit card companies, which charge interest high enough to keep cardholders beholden for decades. American Express had a different strategy—hook the merchants, not the cardholders.

With the advent of American Express’ Blue Cash and related cards, as well as the Pay Over Time feature on Green, Gold, and Platinum cards, now the idea is to hook the cardholders, too. The percentage of each transaction is tiny, but a tiny percentage multiplied by $870 billion in annual charges is enough to turn a more-than-handsome profit.

Future Plans

In its 2020 annual report, American Express indicated that it had focused on four strategic initiatives over the prior year: expanding its leadership in the premium consumer area, continuing to grow its commercial payments segment, improving its global integrated network, and continuing to focus on its digital offerings. The company is likely to continue to develop these goals into the future as well. Particularly since announcing the reduction in merchant fees in March of 2018, American Express has signaled that it may be revising its business model to keep fees across the board lower in an effort to boost the overall number of transactions.

Key Challenges

For all of its success, as of 2020 American Express still lags behind its major competitors, Visa and Mastercard, when it comes to the number of partner merchants, according to the Nilson Report. For the customer, this means that you’re more likely to find that you’re not able to pay for something with the American Express card than you would be with a card from one of its rivals.

Though American Express has reduced its merchant fees, these remain higher than those of some other credit card companies, which may be a barrier to wider merchant acceptance. However, American Express has some advantages as well: As both an issuer and a network, it is able to provide a more streamlined, predictable service than can Visa or Mastercard, neither of which typically issues its own cards.