General Electric Company – Should You Catch It at $20?

GE stock is getting close to a buy but $20 probably isn't where it hits bottom

By Ian Bezek, InvestorPlace Contributor

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General Electric Company (NYSE:GE) has fallen back to levels last consistently seen in 2012. Last week, GE stock suffered its worst weekly loss since the financial crisis, declining 13%. And the selling still isn’t letting up. GE stock dipped under the $20-mark briefly on Wednesday morning.

This decline has, not surprisingly, led to a great deal of attention. Is now finally the time to buy? It’s no secret why GE has fallen on hard times. Our own Lawrence Meyers had a nice take earlier this week. Shares were already trending down earlier this year, as the company has taken longer to reach its full potential as a leaner industrial company than anticipated. Big moves such as the Alstom acquisition were always going to take awhile to integrate.

GE Stock: From Bad To Worse

However, Q3 results came in far short of expectations. The results whiffed so badly that analysts pretty much had to start over. New CEO John Flannery clearly wanted to get the bad news out of the way. That allows him to stick much of the blame on the outgoing Jeffrey Immelt-era leadership team. And no doubt about it, there’s plenty of blame to go there. Immelt’s rein led to disastrous GE stock performance compared to the market and other industrial companies. Even excluding the near-death experience in the financial crisis, Immelt’s GE made numerous other large blunders, including selling NBC Universal on the cheap and making a big bet on energy right as oil prices topped.

I get why Flannery wants to paint the Immelt years in the worst possible light. Regardless, these numbers were still a disaster, even taking that into account. The company’s cash-flow generation for the year is only going to come in around 50-60% of previous expectations. For a company as gigantic as General Electric, it is hard to fathom how this could happen. The media is enjoying making fun of Immelt’s second corporate jet and other such frivolous expenses. But while the media is playing up salacious tidbits, it’s worth remembering that 2017 is shaping up to be one of the worst years in GE history.

Is GE Stock Still Safe?

That brings us to the first major issue: the dividend. Based on cash flow, GE will fall about a billion dollars short of being able to pay out its 2017 cash flow. Even on a generally more lenient earnings basis, it appears dividend payments will exceed EPS for the year.

GE has been paying down debt greatly in previous years. But it still has $130 billion or so of total debtload. As such, it probably won’t want to borrow more funds to support its current $8 billion annual dividend obligation. Thus, its recently-announced efforts at even more asset sales. However, it’s unclear if they’ll get good prices, since the market knows they are a distressed seller.

While GE hasn’t indicated that it’s going to trim the dividend, it is a logical place to save money. The current $8 billion obligation is a tall order, and the company could slide that back to around $5 billion per year while still maintaining a generous 3% dividend yield.

The Case for GE Stock

But enough with negatives. Investors have punished GE amply, sending the stock down from 32 to 20 lately. GE’s remaining industrial businesses have huge market share — GE dominates numerous niches. The company is now significantly more stable without the troublesome GE Capital division.

One would assume that Flannery is showing the worst possible profile of GE now. This is in order to get credit for returning GE to a better place later. Until last week, analysts were expecting 1.24 in earnings next year, and then 10% annual growth through 2022. Third-quarter results will force those estimates down. It’s still a good place to start thinking about future GE stock valuation. At $20, GE stock sells for less than the prior 17x 2018 earnings estimates.

In five years, assuming 10% CAGR growth, earnings rise to $2 per share. That’s a steal for a $20 stock. At 14x earnings — about the lowest I could conceptualize for GE unless the whole market tanks — that would put GE at $28. And a PE ratio closer to 18-20 would certainly be possible, putting the stock in the high 30s.

In cyclical companies, things are almost never as good as they look during strong expansions, and things are rarely as bad at the bottom as the media portrays things. GE has great assets, and the economy remains strong. Peers such as Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE:HON), United Technologies Corporation (NYSE:UTX), and Lockheed Martin Corporation (NYSE:LMT) are having tremendous success. Given that backdrop, GE has a good chance of turning things around.

GE Stock Verdict

What to make of GE stock then? GE faces that classic timing question. The Street now expects a dividend cut. That causes a downward spiral, where everyone wants to dump before the bad news. As is often the case, GE stock may bottom the day the dividend is cut, should that come to pass.

I don’t see a rush to buy GE stock here. The chart doesn’t appear to be forming a bottom yet. We haven’t seen a spike in volume that typically marks a bottom. GE stock, if it loses the $20 level, is likely to continue drifting lower for the time being.

If you want to dollar-cost average in, this looks like a fine price to get started. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see GE’s stock price trade in the teens for awhile. The market is likely to remain jittery until the dividend is either cut or reaffirmed.

At the time of this writing, the author owned UTX stock. He had no positions in any of the other aforementioned securities. You can reach him on Twitter at @irbezek.


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