American Express owns one of the premier payment card networks in the world. While it trails behind rivals like Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA) in terms of the number of cards issued, AXP beats its peers in terms of dollar volume. Because American Express' high-end brand enables the firm to charge deeper fees than other card issuers, the firm's profitability is enviable. On the flip side, AmEx is the sole big-three card network that's also an issuer, a status that throws extra risk on the firm's balance sheet. The firm's more recent embrace of third party issuing banks should help the firm grow its fee revenue without expanding its exposure to credit risk, a good tradeoff in my view.
Like other lenders, AmEx opted to become a bank holding company in the wake of the recession. While the move gives AmEx access to cheap capital, it's also imposed bigger restrictions on the risks that the firm can take with its own cash -- and with investors' cash. That said, the more affluent demographics attracted to American Express' flagship charge cards should continue to fuel impressive dollar volume through the firm's network as the economy heats back up, and that should help shovel cash into the firm's coffers. With AXP's 20-cent quarterly dividend sitting stagnant for four quarters now, a hike looks likely in the near-term.
Time Warner Cable
It's hard to be a cable company. Just ask Time Warner Cable (TWC - Get Report) -- the $28 billion spin off has the capital needs of a typical utility firm without the whole government-sponsored monopoly deal that most utilities get. Instead, competition continues to intensify for communications providers. But that hasn't stopped TWC from generating some impressive numbers since splitting off from its parent company in 2009.Time Warner Cable owns a network that spans more than 29 million U.S. homes, providing TV, internet, and phone service to customers concentrated on the East Coast and more recently in the Midwest. Among the various kinds of communications firms vying for consumers' TV, phone, and internet dollars, cable companies are probably the best positioned if only for the fact that their networks can handle higher bandwidth. Just look at Verizon (VE), whose FiOS service is great, but costs an estimated $4,000 to run to a new residential customer; it's hard to be profitable when your breakeven targets are so far away. TWC has been paying down the cost of its network for years now, keeping costs well below the cash it generates.