Capital One posts lower-than-expected profits


Capital One has long relied on credit card fees and interest payments for a significant portion of its revenue. (BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS)

Americans have less credit card debt than they did during the depths of the recession — and that hasn’t been good news for Capital One.

Profit at the McLean-based financial giant, one of the country’s largest credit card lenders, rose a tepid 2.1 percent during the fourth quarter, the company reported Thursday. Analysts had expected larger gains.

Capital One has long relied on credit card fees and interest payments for a significant portion of its revenue. But as Americans increasingly pay off their balances at the end of the month, the company has been looking for new ways to make up for lost revenue.

Americans’ credit card debt peaked in 2008 at $1.01 trillion during the throes of the financial crisis. That figure had fallen to $845.8 billion as of 2012, according to data from the Federal Reserve.

The uneven economic recovery has exacerbated matters, said Bill Carcache, an analyst for Nomura Equity Research in New York. Lower- and middle-income Americans continue to keep a tight watch on their wallets amid slow job growth.

“The resurgence in spending since the recession has been driven by the affluent,” Carcache said. “But they pay off their balance every month.”

To combat its sluggish credit card division, Capital One has begun efforts to woo big spenders who would bring in transaction fees every time they swipe their credit cards. The company says it expects its credit card division to grow during the second half of 2014.

“New account originations are growing, and we’re seeing more opportunities to increase [credit] lines for existing customers,” Richard D. Fairbank, chief executive and chairman of Capital One, said in a call with analysts Thursday.

For the fourth quarter, the company posted a profit of $842 million, or $1.45 per share, up from $825 million, or $1.41 per share, a year earlier. Revenue, meanwhile, fell 1.4 percent to $5.54 billion in the same period.

By comparison, American Express, which makes most of its money not from outstanding credit card debt but from transaction fees, has fared well. Profit at the New York-based company more than doubled to $1.31 billion in the fourth quarter, while revenue was up 5 percent from the previous year.

Capital One also has focused on beefing up other parts of its business in recent months. Late last year, it purchased Bethesda-based Beech Street Capital, which finances mortgages for apartment buildings. A 2012 acquisition of online bank ING Direct helped expand Capital One’s retail banking operations.

Capital Business is The Post’s weekly publication focusing on the region’s business community.

Abha Bhattarai covers local banking, retail and hospitality for The Washington Post’s Capital Business section. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters and the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times.
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