Aside from the most recent sessions in the broad financial markets, the biggest news across business media was the atrocious start to the new year. In fact, stocks had the worst opening two-week performance in its history. But on Friday, the 211 point move in the Dow Jones Industrial Average gave hope to many on Wall Street, particularly as many individual companies posted huge gains. However, one name was a conspicuous contrarian.
American Express Co. (NYSE:AXP) is in a world of hurt. At the tail end of last week, AXP lost an astonishing -12%, acting more like a speculative mining company than as a Dow 30 component. Year-to-date against the closing price of January 4, AXP is down more than -17% — easily the biggest loser within the Dow Jones.
Of course, there are multiple underperformers in this bull market suddenly turned bear. But as a matter of comparison, rival credit card company Visa Inc. (NYSE:V) slotted north 1.6% on Friday. While Visa remains underwater on a YTD basis, its -5% loss significantly undercuts that of AXP.
What has turned one of the most prominent financial industry stalwarts known for catering to high-end clientele into a sad shell of its former self? A string of poor earnings results was signaling a crisis-point, and its most recent report for the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2015 simply pushed AXP over the proverbial edge.
Top-line sales in Q4 less interest expense tumbled 8%, while earnings per share dropped off the scale at -36%. For the full year, revenue was off 4% against the prior year, down to $32.8 billion. EPS slipped -9%, settling nominally to $5.05.
If investors were looking for signs of life from AXP's management team, they weren't getting any. Chairman and chief executive officer Kenneth I. Chenault, was uncharacteristically pensive in the earnings conference call, noting that for the 2016-2017 earnings season, the company was targeting an EPS "of at least $5.60." This whimsical target would be achieved through "accelerated revenue growth" that in part can be drawn through a "trusted brand, financial strength, an integrated business model, world class service and a history of innovation."
I won't argue with any of those points, except for the last one. By its default nature, credit card companies are decades behind the ball in terms of innovation. The transition to a less-intertwined world dependent upon physical mediums is evident not only in finance but across multiple industries.
We're not just talking bitcoin here, although that plays a role into the declining popularity of the current manifestation of finance. Rather, people are broadly accepting a cashless society. Eventually, biometrics will make the need for carrying cumbersome wallets a thing of the past. Don't leave home without it? With such technology, you won't have to even think about it!
That may be years down the road. In the near-term, AXP has a very big technical dilemma. With the enormous losses incurred last week, American Express shares are now roughly trading at the average price point of 2012. That, my friends, is three years of market action flushed down the toilet essentially over the course of a single day. Traders by now have entered into short positions to protect themselves, which may make further volatility a greater probability.
Certainly, against prior highs, AXP is trading at a discount. But I would argue that the fundamentals are so shaky that it would be far better to wait until the company further discounts itself before considering a long position.