American Express' 4Q earnings down 47 percent

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American Express' 4Q earnings down 47 percent. (Reuters) American Express' 4Q earnings down 47 percent. (Reuters)
SummaryThe company's provision for losses grew 56 percent to $638 million.

American Express on Thursday said its fourth-quarter net income fell 47 percent, as the credit card issuer racked up hefty charges related to restructuring costs and other one-time expenses. But adjusted results beat Wall Street expectations.

The New York-based company had previously alerted investors that its earnings would be taking a hit in the October-December period as a result of booking roughly $594 million in after-tax charges.

The biggest portion of the costs pertains to a restructuring plan that involves cutting some 5,400 jobs, mostly from the company's travel business. The strategy aims to reduce costs and put the company in better position to cater to customers increasingly turning to online and mobile devices to shop, pay bills and make travel plans.

The rest of the charges were related to the company's cardholder rewards program and for reimbursements of interest and fees to customers.

Expenses aside, American Express was buoyed by an 8 percent increase in cardholder spending during the quarter, which coincided with the holiday season, traditionally a time when consumers spend more.

Steady job growth and lower gas prices kept US consumers shopping for the holidays, despite worries about potential tax increases. Retail sales rose 0.5 percent in December from November, according to the Commerce Department.

On a conference call with Wall Street analysts, American Express Chief Financial Officer Dan Henry said that spending growth by cardholders continued to be healthy in a “very uneven economy.''

Even with the impact of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated much of the Northeast in late October, the rate of growth in the company's billings was consistent with the third quarter, he noted.

“We continue to feel positive about our performance, especially given the uncertain economic environment,'' Henry said.

Revenue at the company's US card services segment rose 4 percent to $4.1 billion, as cardholders spent more. And net interest income grew 7 percent, as borrowers took on more debt, on average.

At the same time, loan losses remained near all-time lows. The company's provision for losses grew 56 percent to $638 million, but that reflected higher loan loss reserve releases a year earlier.

An increase in cardholder rewards helped drive American Express' expenses 18 percent higher to $6.6 billion.

American Express cardholders tend to be more affluent than other credit card users, and the company has done well in the slow, bumpy recovery from the recession.

For the three months ended Dec. 31, American Express reported net income of $637 million, or 56 cents per

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