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Quick Hits: AmEx Goes Begging in DC


Brief scrutiny of today's headlines.

The cynics may be right: American Express (AXP) appears to be jangling the tin cup in front of Uncle Sam the day after filing to become a bank holding company.

The credit card company, hit by the slowdown in consumer spending, apparently seeks about $3.5 billion in taxpayer money from the Federal government, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The begging might work. Retailers, car companies and others slammed by the economic downturn haven't received bailout bucks, but financial firms have. The basic question: Why is a consumer credit card company vital to the US economy?

The answer may be because AmEx's top executive can't imagine themselves on the unemployment line. Here's betting the sun would still rise in the east, even in a world without American Express.

Converting American Express and American Express Travel Related Services to bank holding companies allow the credit card issuers to attract deposits and to tap financing from the Federal Reserve.

In this respect, American Express follows Goldman Sachs (GS) and Morgan Stanley (MS), which also recently became bank holding companies. But Goldie and (once) Mighty Morgan are directly involved in raising and allocating capital to fund major companies and startups to keep the economy growing. American Express pitches itself as the credit card of the snooty, and is involved only in consumer spending.

American Express says more of its customers are having trouble paying their bills on time, if at all. Profit declined 24% in the third quarter - the fourth quarter in a row of lower earnings. That's reduced the value of the company and made it harder to borrow money to cover daily operations.

To which the simple student might ask: So what?

Competitors Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA) operate credit card processing networks and aren't eligible for federal dollars through the Troubled Asset Relief Program, because they're not considered financial institutions.

But you can bet if American Express succeeds in ripping off the taxpayer, any credit card company or related operation in trouble will follow, even if it means bending the rules.

After all, rules are for suckers and taxpayers are looking like the biggest suckers. These days, that passes for a business plan.
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