American Express' ( AXP) reported better-than-expected earnings fueled by higher spending by its wealthy individuals and small-business customers. In the three months ended Sept. 30, the New York credit card and travel services company reported profit of $1.06 billion, or 90 cents a share, up 10% from the year-earlier quarter of $967 million, or 79 cents a share. Revenue, net of interest expense, rose 11% to $6.9 billion. Analysts had expected American Express would make 85 cents a share. "Our strong earnings growth this quarter reflected a 16% rise in combined spending by consumers, small businesses and corporate cardmembers," said Kenneth Chenault, the company's chairman and chief executive. American Express tends to focus on the business elite and wealthy individuals as its primary customer base. Profit at the company's U.S. card services business rose 6% to $592 million in the quarter. Revenue in the unit rose 12% to $3.6 billion, American Express said. Its international card business profit jumped 32% to $140 million, while card revenue outside of the U.S. rose 17% to $1.1 billion. Yet American Express was not immune to this summer's credit crunch and increased its provisioning for potential loan losses by 25% to $982 million. The company attributed most of the increased to "strong growth" in outstanding customer loans, along with write-off and delinquency rates "returning to levels more consistent with historical rates from the unusually low levels of a year ago," it said.
"While we continue to be cautious about the overall economy, our ongoing focus on the premium sector and careful management of loan and investment portfolios allowed us to maintain strong credit quality that compares favorably to the industry," Chenault said. At least one analyst believes that credit card companies including American Express will be forced to face the music as consumers, some of which are already delinquent on their mortgage payments, will begin having trouble paying their credit card bills. Earlier Monday, Bruce Harting, an analyst at Lehman Brothers, downgraded American Express, Capital One ( COF) and Discover ( DFS) to equal weight. "We believe that the hefty losses in the mortgage sector cannot happen in a vacuum, and that it is just a matter of time before problems spill over to the other loan sectors in consumer finance, most notably credit cards, auto and other forms of credit," he writes in the industry note. The stock rose 68 cents, or 1%, in after-hours trading to $57.55.