Dog Eat Dog in Credit Cards

09/15/2009 12:58 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

If you've wondered what JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM), one of the winners in the banking crisis, is going to do to savage more damaged competitors, wonder a little less. On September 14, the bank announced it is going after American Express (NYSE: AXP) and its highly profitable high-end card customers.

The effort is called Chase Blueprint, and it's targeted right at those credit card customers who have the income to decide how much of their monthly bill they'll pay off interest-free and how much they'll turn into a monthly balance.

The key to the effort is a software billing program that will allow the holders of the company's 152 million cards to decide which monthly purchases to pay off interest free—the traditional American Express card model—and which to finance.

Then—and this is the hook that's designed to appeal to the new, fiscally prudent spirit of our times—Blueprint will tell customers how much interest they would save by paying more than the monthly medium.

It's no coincidence that this transparency directly addresses a huge consumer complaint—that credit card companies don't give consumers the information they need to cut the interest and fees they pay and instead steer them into behavior that maximizes income for card companies.

Blueprint follows another challenge to American Express from JPMorgan Chase called Sapphire. This credit card allows consumers to finance some purchases while paying off the rest interest-free. Sapphire also will offer the Blueprint platform.

Blueprint and Sapphire come out of a JPMorgan Chase card division that has been headed up by Gordon Smith since June 2007. Smith's former employer? American Express. For almost 32 years.

The company's card operation lost $1.59 billion in the past three quarters, and, according to chief executive officer Jamie Dimon, won't make a profit in 2009 or 2010. But business has improved, with charge-offs for uncollectible loans falling to 7.92% in July, compared with the industry average 10.55%. (See my September 14 post for more.)

American Express remained the top-ranked US card issuer by dollars processed with $196 billion in transactions in the first six months of 2009. JPMorgan Chase was number two with $166 billion.

That gap is $16 billion smaller than it was in the same six months of 2008, showing that Chase is narrowing the gap.

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