American Express Co. is showing signs of wanting to market its card- related services with - and not always against - its bank competitors.
The strategy may not directly affect competition in the United States, but it could revive past debates over whether banks should view American Express as a friend or foe, or both.
American Express is putting its cooperative foot forward in smaller, emerging markets overseas, where it does not issue cards in the local currency.
The card company sees piggybacking on bank partners' relationships as an efficient way to gain customers for itself.
For example, the financial services giant announced last week that Bank Hapoalim, the biggest bank in Israel, had agreed to issue American Express cards and sell acceptance of the cards to its network of 40,000 merchants.
Such joint marketing is a throwback to the original American Express Gold Card program, in which banks offered a credit line with what was essentially a cobranded charge card.
Officials at the bank credit card associations are wary. They see American Express using their member banks to gain leverage in parts of the world where the banks have a distinct, historical advantage.
In the Israeli example, Bank Hapoalim already issues both MasterCard and Visa cards.
Edmund P. Jensen, chief executive of Visa International, said he was concerned that American Express would seek out relationships with more banks to issue cards in emerging markets.
Some observers are not so exercised. They point out that large numbers of banks have long served as sales agents for American Express Travelers Cheques - which show no sign of losing their market-share dominance to the Visa or MasterCard/Thomas Cook brands.
Speculation that sometime in the future, banks in the United States may offer American Express applications in their branches and even solicit their customers to apply for American Express cards is not so far off base, said one industry expert.
Analyst Thomas Facciola of Salomon Brothers sees cooperative marketing as a trend moving into credit cards from other areas of financial services.
"Banks are becoming vendors of other companies' products," he said. "We have seen this with the sale of annuities and mutual funds, for example."
As it did in the cooperative gold card program, which was wound down in the late 1980s as American Express went into the revolving credit business with the Optima Card, the company says its products can help banks serve desirable customers and produce an attractive revenue stream.
Because it is concentrated in countries where American Express does not have a local-currency card, the new strategy is unlikely to surface in major markets like the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Mexico, and France.
American Express has card operations in 160 countries but it only issues cards in the local currency in 35.
James M. Li, president of the New York-based company's international business-development group, said the comarketing plan got underway last year. It fits an older pattern, however.
American Express has had relationships with Nedbank of South Africa for a number of years, he said, as well as with Atlas, a travel agency in the former Yugoslavia, since the early 1970s.
In a country like Israel, American Express issues cards and bills charges in dollars to a small base of affluent consumers and business people.
Green and gold cards to be issued later this year by the $40 billion- asset Bank Hapoalim will be shekel-denominated.
Bank Hapoalim's name will appear on the American Express cards, and the bank will be the exclusive card-marketing partner in Israel.
It will also be responsible for marketing, billing, authorizations, fraud control, and processing functions.
"This alliance fits with the bank's strategy of increasing its market share among affluent households and business segments within the Israeli marketplace," said Amiram Sivan, chairman of Bank Hapoalim's board.
American Express will receive a portion of the merchant fees as well as royalties.
American Express established a similar relationship in January with Banco Commercial Portugues in Lisbon, Portugal.
Other partnerships are being negotiated, and each will be structured differently, said Mr. Li.
In some cases the bank will be responsible for signing merchants.
In others, American Express will work with independent agents that sell the brand and provide settlement services.