American Express Says JPMorgan Is Credit Card Copycat

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) is copying every move of American Express ( AXP) in its bid to court affluent consumers, a strategy that recently subjected the bank to a bit of ribbing from a top executive at the credit card company.

Noting earlier this month at an investor conference hosted by Citigroup that American Express has "a number of competitors in the US who certainly are aimed at affluent consumers," Amex Vice Chairman Ed Gilligan took a pointed jab at JPMorgan's retail arm.

"I would say Chase in particular certainly has been executing well their strategy, but their strategy seems to be to follow American Express's strategy from a couple of years ago," said Gilligan, seemingly unconcerned with an unspoken banking industry practice of avoiding public comments regarding competitors.

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"I don't view them as a leader in the field," Gilligan went on. "I view them as following step-by-step the things that American Express are doing, and they are executing well. But I think American Express is truly differentiating itself. Chase probably has 70%, 80% of their revenue in their card segment coming from balances. So whether they may be growing spend, their revenue is still down year over year. American Express is growing our charge volume nicely in the US and around the world, and our revenue is growing," Gilligan said.

If indeed JPMorgan is following American Express's playbook, it would not be surprising. Gordon Smith, JPMorgan's CEO of Card Services, joined JPMorgan in 2007 after spending 25 years at American Express. A call to Smith was not returned, and a JPMorgan spokesman declined to comment on Gilligan's remarks.

Bob Napoli, who covers American Express (but not JPMorgan) for William Blair & Co., argues Amex has "been more innovative over the last couple of years than in the more than 10 years that I've followed them."

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While he believes JPMorgan "is doing overall a pretty good job" when it comes to revenues, he added that "we don't have the data to try to break that down into the affluent portion of JPMorgan."

Still, Napoli notes that "American Express is still growing very strongly" posting what he calls "solid double-digit spending growth." He concludes that "if JPMorgan is having success in that area it doesn't appear to be affecting American Express at this point."

In a presentation to investors Feb. 28, JPMorgan's Smith pointed to metrics including revenue margin and compound annual growth rate to argue JPMorgan's credit card business is beating rivals, including American Express.

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Looking at the affluent and high net worth segment, however, it is more difficult to see clear improvement for JPMorgan. Return on equity in that segment went from 23% in 2009 to 4% in 2010 to 16% last year.

-- Written by Dan Freed in New York.

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