American Express CEO Chenault: Growth may resume at end of 2010

Speaking on CNBC, American Express (AXP) CEO Ken Chenault said that he was seeing signs of a stabilization in business, but not of an economic recovery. He joins an increasing number of influential business leaders, including Warren Buffett, who have said that an economic rebound is still not in sight.

American Express' credit cards target higher-end, affluent customers who are normally persistent spenders. Chenault said that the current downturn is unusual in that it has hit the company's core demographic very hard. Billings handled by the company are down double-digits since last year, but the pace of decline has flattened out. "Stability in billings is encouraging, but I wouldn't characterize it as a recovery," Chenault said.

Chenault was also asked about the potential for acquisition of other big-name credit card portfolios -- such as those of Citigroup (C) or General Electric (GE) -- which are known to be for sale. He declined to comment specifically, saying only that American Express would be interested in building out its portfolio of co-branded rewards cards that target affluent consumers.

The credit card industry has been a target of regulatory reform by politicians, who are angered by fee and charging practices that, they say, hurt consumers. Perhaps surprisingly for the CEO of a major credit card brand, Chenault stated that, "I believe very strongly that the credit card industry needed to be reformed... there needs to be more disclosure and transparency."

Even so, he worried that certain measures -- such as limited the ability of card companies to change interest rates -- would actually hurt the people that they were meant to help. "Risk-based pricing is important... and if someone's financial situation changes dramatically and you don't have the flexibility to price, what's going to happen? The very people who need credit will not be able to obtain it at the same level and it will be more expensive." American Express is different than most credit card companies in that it makes the majority of its money from transaction and membership fees, as opposed to interest.

Speaking about the return of GDP growth, Chenault was not as optimistic that the broader economy would see a turn this year, as many have speculated. While being hesitant to make an outright prediction, he said, "I would hope that we would start to see some improvement maybe in the second half of 2010."

James Cullen edits and writes at He is the Vice-President of the Boston College Investment Club, which owns GE, but has no personal position in the stocks mentioned above.

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