American Express is having a bad time of things at the moment. The loss of the Costco contract in the US was a hammer blow to the business (I thoroughly recommend reading the story here) and there has been a drip of other contract losses. The potential loss of the Starwood Preferred Guest card – which is a big deal in the US – also hangs over it, as Marriott has a long established deal with Visa.
I occasionally get emails from people asking why American Express does pro-rata fee refunds on its cards when you cancel. The answer, from a friend who worked in card operations in London for a major US bank, is that it is because Amex does this in the US and it needs to standardise policies for accounting reasons.
American Express is now changing the rules in the US with the following message appearing on statements:
Closing your Account Effective September 1, 2016, in Part 2 of the Cardmember Agreement, we are amending the Closing your Account sub-section in the Other important information section by inserting a new paragraph after the first sentence: If an Annual Membership fee applies, we will refund this fee if you notify us that you are voluntarily closing your Account within 30 days of the Closing Date of the billing statement on which that fee appears. For cancellations after this 30 day period, the Annual Membership fee is non-refundable. If an Annual Membership fee applies to your Account, it is shown on page 1 and page 2 of Part 1 of the Cardmember Agreement.
You can see why it would do this. Let’s imagine that Amex earns, in the UK, £25m per year from annual fees. At any point in time, 50% of that revenue is at risk of being refunded and so it cannot be treated as income.
Switching, overnight, to a system which did not allow refunds would immediately add £12.5m of profit. I have no idea what the US number would be but it would be many times larger. It is a tempting target for a CEO who is now under threat of takeover and who is desperate to make his numbers look good.
There is no certainty that the same rules will apply here. However, if the only reason it didn’t already happen here is that Amex wanted its global accounting policies to match, it may well be on the way.
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