American Express Co. said Tuesday that it plans its first securitization of card receivables, a step previously taken only by banks and other credit card issuers.

The company filed a registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an offering backed by receivables from the American Express green, gold, and platinum cards. These are charge cards that customers generally pay off quickly, without incurring revolving debt.

Optima Not Included

Receivables from the Optima credit card, a revolving product like the many bank cards that have been securitized, will not be included in the pool backing the American Express offering.

Banks and nonbanking companies such as Sears, Roebuck & Co. have issued billions of dollars in securities backed by card receivables in the past five years to finance portfolio expansion and boost capital.

In addition, because card securities generally earn triple-A grades from the rating agencies, the issues can be a relatively inexpensive source of funds.

American Express has funded its short-term card receivables - between the time American Express pays merchants and the time cardholders pay their bills - with commercial paper, bank lines of credit, and certificates of deposit.

But the fast turnover of the assets made securitization difficult.

Specifics Lacking

Details are sketchy on how American Express and its investment banking affiliate and lead underwriter, Lehman Brothers Inc., will structure the transaction so that bonds are created from the short-term receivables.

An American Express spokeswoman said the dollar value of securities, the maturity date, and when the issue would be marketed have not been set.

As in credit card securitizations, American Express plans to set up a trust that will buy receivables from the company. The trust will then issue securities backed by the receivables.

Unlike in revolving credit deals, there is no interest stream from which to pay bondholders.

The trust would buy American Express receivables at a discount, with the remainder going to pay interest to bondholders, the company said.

American Express Credit Corp., a subsidiary that finances receivables for the charge cards, had $8.2 billion in outstanding commercial paper at yearend 1991.

Moody's Investors Service Inc. downgraded America Express' senior debt last year to an A, which could boost the cost of debt. Securitization could provide cheaper funds than debt or bank lines of credit.

Avoiding a Stock Issue

Raising capital may be another motive. "American Express is clearly interested in raising capital in a variety of ways without a big offering to shareholders," said James P. Hanbury, an analyst with Wertheim Schroder.

In April, for example, the company sold 46% of First Data Corp. for $1.1 billion. American Express has $7 billion in equity and $140 billion in assets.

Issuance of credit card securities has slowed this year, with only two bank credit card offerings. Consumer borrowing is down.

In addition, the market turned cold after Sen. Alfonse D'Amato (R-N.Y.) last November introduced legislation to cap the interest rates banks could charge on their revolving credit cards.

The legislation did not pass, but investors grew fearful of credit-card-backed securities.

Even before the American Express announcement, banks planned to return to the marketplace.

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