With Costco in the past, Amex shifts the narrative

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The dark cloud that was the lost Costco card portfolio didn't garner a mention during the American Express 2017 fourth-quarter earnings call Thursday — the first time in many quarters that this was the case.

Instead, Amex Chief Financial Officer Jeff Campbell was more than happy to discuss "Platinum," the premier card in the Amex portfolio. In many ways, Amex has put the Costco loss in the rear-view mirror, absorbing at least some of that blow in taking over the full Hilton Honors co-branded credit card portfolio this year, rather than sharing it with Citigroup.

To be sure, Amex still has some obstacles to overcome after reporting a net loss of $1.2 million for the quarter because of implications of the new tax bill, and some overriding costs of various rewards programs, including the Hilton cards.

The company had revealed this month that it expected the new tax law to result in a reduction of fourth-quarter earnings by as much as $2.4 billion, giving it a net loss for the fourth quarter. In an adjustment revealed this week, Amex put that initial tax hit at $2.6 billion.

The tax law creates a 15.5% rate hike on the company's overseas income held as cash, while non-cash holdings would be taxed at 8%. Previously, those types of earnings were deferred until they were brought back to the U.S. from abroad.

But revenue at Amex is humming along at $8.8 billion for the quarter, up from $8 billion a year earlier, fueled in part by a strong U.S. economy as well as the success of the card brand's two-year plan to cut operating costs through lower headcount, negotiating better deals with vendors and establishing new practices and policies.

But a big part of that enthusiasm has to do with cardholder acceptance of higher fees for higher rewards with the Amex Platinum card and overall cardholder spending, which Amex cited as the engine behind its 10% increase in quarterly revenues.

"When you think about our fourth quarter, it was the highest revenue growth we have seen in quite some time, and the fourth quarter is when we already began to lap the Platinum changes," Campbell said, referring to the time frame in which Amex reaped the benefits of its Platinum card promotions.

"Over the last four quarters, we were seeing rewards [[costs] growing faster than billing because of the Platinum changes, but this past quarter it came back to a more normal level, where the rewards were more consistent with billing," Campbell added.

Amex has worked on positioning the Platinum card at top of market since 2016, bringing in music giant Pharrell Williams as a promoter.

But in the past year, Amex turned the Platinum card into a metal card, a trend throughout the industry of using sturdier materials for elite cards. In addition to all of the card's benefits on airline fees and access to airport lounges, the new card included up to $200 annually in Uber credits for rides within the U.S.

It also boosted points earnings at five points per dollar on airline tickets and at hotels booked through American Express Travel. And, while the fee for the Platinum card rose to $550 a year from $450, Amex eliminated the fees for up to five Gold cards when added to an account.

Ultimately, cardholders did the math and determined the new perks were worth the higher annual fee.

"The fact that you continue to see strong performance in Platinum and the fact you did not see any drop-off in revenue growth, we feel really good about that," Campbell said.

Despite all the competition with other elite cards, Amex ended 2017 with record numbers of Platinum cardholders, Campbell added, though he did not disclose cardholder figures.

"It's a tremendously strong confirmation of the differentiated value proposition we offer," Campbell said. "It is the value of some of the experiential benefits, and the fact that we have the courage, because we believe in them, to price for those benefits and that value proposition."

As a result, he added, Amex goes into 2018 "with a lot of great momentum with the Platinum product."

Still, the company has a few challenges this year that may or may not affect the bottom line.

Amex faces a Supreme Court ruling in the coming year regarding merchant accusations that Amex rules don't allow card steering, or merchants encouraging their customers to use certain cards because of better interchange rates.

The company also has to determine the fate of its Plenti multi-merchant loyalty program in light of several retailers leaving.

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Credit cards Loyalty and rewards Earnings American Express