Friday, July 24, 2009

Random Thoughts: American Express, Kraft, and MGM

1. American Express (AXP) CEO Kenneth Chenault had these sobering words to say (from American Express's 2008 Annual Report):

The experience of the past year reinforces the principle that people should not spend more than they have the capacity to earn and pay back. And financial services companies should not encourage people to get over their heads in debt. Healthier consumer behavior is better for everyone in the long run. (Shareholder letter, page 9)

You might say Mr. Chenault deserves an obviousness award, except that millions of Americans are currently swimming in mortgage and credit card debt.

The upside is that American Express has plenty of room to grow: "Today, cash is used for about two-thirds of global personal consumption." Every time someone uses a credit card instead of cash, American Express receives a transaction fee. If American Express continues to successfully expand, it will make plenty of money.

On a side note, I don't understand why American Express isn't issuing credit cards with embedded chips here in the States. Almost all American credit card companies are still using the old magnetic strip technology, which is lovely--if you're into identity theft.

Magnetic strip technology makes stealing your credit card information very easy. The Europeans have figured this out and have mostly switched to embedded chip technology. American Express's Blue card used to offer embedded chip technology, but that's apparently been replaced by an ExpressPay system. If you have information about whether the ExpressPay system is more secure than the embedded chip technology, please post a comment.

2.I just realized that all of my lunch items, except for the bread, are Kraft-branded (KFT). This wasn't intentional--I don't care about brand names and usually focus on price. As a result, I was surprised when I peeked in my sandwich drawer and saw a) Kraft cheese (I love Kraft's extra sharp cheddar); b) Kraft mayo (with olive oil); and c) Oscar-Mayer lunch meats. (Kraft owns Oscar Mayer.) As more Americans brown-bag their lunches to save money, Kraft stands to benefit.

Also, Kraft recently provided me with good customer service, which is an important marketplace differentiator. In an era of increasing generic and store-branded competition, customer service matters more than ever. My issue related to Oscar-Mayer lunch meats. I complained that a package of turkey slices went bad too early. Nothing else in the same fridge drawer went bad, not even the other lunch meats. I asked Kraft to double-check their packaging on that particular item. I received a letter from a Kim M that acknowledged my issue, along with a coupon for a replacement pack. Now that's excellent customer service. Kudos to Kraft and Kim M.

3. Some interesting tidbits from MGM Mirage's (MGM) annual report:

Wasn't 2008 Supposed to Be the Bottom?: "Our current expectations for 2009 indicate that operating cash flow will be lower than in 2008." (page 3)

Yield Premiums Gone Wild: MGM issued $850 million of 11.125% senior secured notes due 2017 (page 4). Treasuries currently offer around a 3% yield. When a company has to offer 11%+ secured notes to attract financing, that's scary, isn't it?

Someone Benefited from Hurricane Katrina?: MGM received "insurance recoveries of $635 million which exceeded the $265 million of net book value of damaged assets and post-storm costs incurred...[MGM] recognized $284 million of insurance recoveries in income." (page 8)

I have little sympathy for MGM. During its 2008 annual shareholder meeting, I asked (former) CEO Terrence Lanni how he planned to adjust to the changing economic environment. I suggested he should lower prices and stop charging for basic items like internet access. He disagreed and seemed to mock my concerns. Other than licensing the MGM name, I didn't see any new streams of revenue. I left that meeting stunned that MGM's management didn't seem to feel the need for major changes. And so it goes.

Disclosure: I may own an insignificant number of shares in AXP, MGM, and KFT. The ownership of shares, if any, has not influenced any opinions expressed above.

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