American Express

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2013 is shaping up to be a stellar year for American Express ( AXP). Shares of the $77 billion financial stock have rallied 22% since the start of the new year, smashing the broad market's already impressive performance. The firm's unique market positioning should keep its niche well-protected, even as competitors try to lure Amex's cardmembers to rival brands.

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American Express owns the most attractive brand in the payment business. By focusing on attracting high-spending high-credit consumers and businesses with its rewards programs and benefits (instead of focusing on issuing credit in volume), the firm created a profitable niche in its flagship charge card products. The lack of a revolving credit line means that Amex enjoys higher creditworthiness among its members -- and it also sports the highest dollar volume across its network, even if its cards aren't carried by nearly the number of customers that more mass market rivals have. For aspirational consumers, that cachet puts American Express cards in wallets.

In the last couple of decades, Amex has expanded its reach, offering traditional credit cards as well as other financial products that are more volume focused. While those offerings are dilutive to the firm's credit health, they add a lot in the way of merchant fees. With a spend-centric (rather than lend-centric) model, the firm is better positioned for the next economic hiccup than its peers are. In the meantime, partnerships with more conventional banks should add to Amex's fee generation abilities without levering up its balance sheet.

Consumer spending should continue to be a big tailwind for American Express in 2013.

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