Benefiting from an overall improved global economy, American Express Co. yesterday reported a 102.5% increase in net income for the first quarter ended March 31, more than double what it earned a year earlier.

Net income for the quarter was $885 million, up 103% from $437 million a year earlier, surpassing analysts’ expectations. The company’s 73 cents-per-share profit easily beat the average analyst estimate of 63 cents, according to a Thomson Reuters poll.

Among the reasons for the better-than-expected result for AmEx were increased billed business and an unanticipated reserve release, John Stilmar, an analyst with Atlanta-based SunTrust Robinson Humphrey, noted in a research note.

AmEx’s U.S. Card Services unit posted net income for the quarter of $428 million; the unit reported a $7 million loss a year ago the company attributed mostly to the economy. Total revenues net of interest expense rose 12.9%, to $3.5 billion from $3.1 billion, growth AmEx attributes to consolidated securitized cardmember loans and related debt. Additionally, the company increased its spending on cardholder rewards by 44.2% during the first quarter, to $1.22 billion from $846 million last year.

U.S. billed business rose 10.9%, to $108 billion from $97.4 billion. Total cards in force declined 8.6%, to 48.8 million from 53.4 million. Dan Henry, AmEx executive vice president and CEO, told analysts during an earnings conference call yesterday the growth in total card billed business came mostly from the company’s focus on “driving charge card spending and premium lending … .”

Additionally, AmEx’s cardholder base does not necessarily reflect the general population, Henry explained when noting why the company’s billed-business volume is at an all-time high. “Our products are designed to meet the needs of high-spending and more-affluent customers,” he said.

Overall, cardholder spending increased 16% during the quarter, Kenneth Chenault, AmEx chairman and CEO, stated in a news release. This quarter, total cardholder spending was $161 billion compared to $139.2 billion last year. The biggest turnarounds in spending came from corporate cardholders and banks issuing cards on AmEx’s network, he said.

The managed charge-off rate on U.S. credit cards was 7.2%, down 130 basis points from 8.5% during the first quarter of 2009. Loan-loss reserves decreased 50.1%, to $687 million from $1.4 billion.

AmEx’s International Card Services unit reported first-quarter net income of $151 million, down 0.7% from $152 million a year ago. International billed business increased 26.8%, to $53 billion from $41.8 billion. Total revenues net of interest expense rose 10%, to $1.1 billion from $1 billion, while total international cards in force increased 2.6%, to 39.2 million from 38.2 million.

The net-charge off rate on international cards was 5.5%, down 90 basis points from 6.4%. International provisions for loan losses declined 52.8%, to $158 million from $335 million a year ago.

To win new customers, AmEx’s marketing and promotion expenses increased back to pre-recessionary levels, Chenault noted in the news release. Such spending rose, 72.5%, to $595 million from $345 million.

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