American Express Co. and Fidelity Investments are teaming up to offer cards linked to Fidelity money market accounts.
The alliance lets American Express issue its gold charge card to Fidelity's 2.5 million clients with USA asset management accounts. A platinum version of the card will be introduced in July.
"This is fertile ground for us to get Amex cards into new customers' hands," Alfred F. Kelly Jr., president of consumer card services group at American Express, said in a telephone news conference. About 70% of Fidelity clients do not have American Express cards.
The deal could help Fidelity challenge the brokerage leader Merrill Lynch, which pioneered the concept in 1977 with card access to its Cash Management Account.
Merrill Lynch recently took aim at American Express' high-end product in newspaper ads, saying its own Visa Signature card "offers you more than a platinum card from you-know-who."
Stephen A. Cone, president of Fidelity Investments customer marketing and development, said the Amex/Fidelity card is "a much better deal" than Merrill Lynch's Visa because Fidelity does not charge an annual fee for its USA Account. Moreover, he said there is no annual fee for the Amex/Fidelity gold version.
Merrill Lynch charges $100 a year for its Cash Management Account and an additional $75 annually for the Visa Signature card, which comes with such extras as concierge service, hotel upgrades, and emergency travel help.
Merrill Lynch spokeswoman Susan Thomson said its Signature card was more exclusive than Fidelity's gold card, and thus it is not meaningful to compare fees. She said a better comparison can be made once Amex introduces the Fidelity platinum, which will include more premium services and cost $225 annually.
Merrill Lynch targets customers with assets of $100,000 or more, Ms. Thomson said, while Fidelity said it requires a minimum account balance of $30,000. Like Merrill Lynch, Fidelity will debit clients' accounts at the end of each month.
Fidelity has been offering a Visa card, issued by PNC Bank Corp., linked to the USA Account. Mr. Cone said Fidelity will no longer promote it.
"If people want the Visa card, that's fine, but we think the Amex card is a better deal," he said in an interview. "We have made a decision to market the heck out of the Amex card."
USA Account applications will give customers a choice between the Amex and Visa brands, Mr. Cone said.
American Express also offers cards to brokerage clients of Lehman Brothers and CIBC Oppenheimer. Mr. Kelly downplayed those relationships, saying those cards are not being marketed and that the "value propositions with Lehman and Oppenheimer are not as strong."
Through its Financial Advisors unit, Amex sells mutual funds and other investment products - competing, in effect, with Fidelity. "They are a competitor and a partner," Mr. Cone said.
Mr. Kelly added, "We have been working with Financial Advisors for years to get their client base to have Amex cards, and those programs are continuing."
Financial Advisors sells mutual funds from outside firms but not from Fidelity, said American Express spokeswoman Gail Wasserman.
James B. Shanahan, a partner with Business Dynamics Consulting Inc. in Newark, Del., questioned the venture's profitability. "Most people don't use their brokerage account for their everyday expenses, so I wonder how much transaction volume" Amex will see, he said.