It’s no secret that blue-chip General Electric (NYSE:GE) has fallen on hard times. The GE stock price continues to hit new lows, as a multitude of problems face the industrial conglomerate. From poor sales at its biggest divisions to missteps in terms of mergers and asset sales, GE isn’t acting like its former self at all.
And you can now add an old foe to the ever-growing list of woes.
It turns out, despite shedding the bulk of GE Capital, the cancer of General Electric’s former finance division is still plaguing GE. With billions in write-downs, an SEC investigation and rising shareholder lawsuits, more pain could be heading General Electric’s way. For investors, this means an even lower GE stock price could be in the cards.
The Specter of GE Capital Remains
One of the reasons why General Electric nearly died during the credit crisis wasn’t its diversified industrial operations, it was its huge financial arm. Under former-CEO Jack Welch, GE cobbled together a huge portfolio of various financial assets — everything from consumer credit cards and mortgages to commercial real estate and mutual fund management.
In the good times, this finance division was actually responsible for the bulk of General Electric’s profits. However, during the bad times, GE was forced to cut its dividend and hang on by a thread because of the problems associated with the financial assets.
In response to that, General Electric decided to get back to its core business of building things. It sold assets by the billions, spun-off its credit card and consumer bank as Synchrony Financial (NYSE:SYF) and shed much of GE Capital in an effort to get back to manufacturing. The keyword there is “much,” however. It didn’t get rid of all of it — and that’s coming back to bite the GE stock price in a big way.
Even before the crisis, GE knew that insurance wasn’t a good bet for the company. So, it spun off its insurance business as Genworth Financial Inc (NYSE:GNW).
But here is where it gets sticky for General Electric.
In order to make the Genworth IPO/spin-off more attractive for investors, GE kept some of the financial risks of some policies on its balance sheet. The issue is that these policies are part of Genworth’s long-term care insurance book of business.
It turns out that long-term care insurance is a terrible place for corporations to tread. Low interest rates and higher life expectancies make long-term care insurance beyond impossible to turn a profit on. And because GE has plenty of this junk on its books, it was forced to take a $6.2 billion after-tax charge in the fourth quarter of 2017. GE will also contribute $15 billion over the next seven years to shore up the insurance portfolio’s reserves.
To make matters worse, the SEC has begun investigating General Electric on how the firm handled its insurance obligations and whether or not, it hid the risks from investors. Likewise, several shareholder lawsuits have begun to circulate that accuse GE of securities fraud.
Big Time Problem for GE Stock Price
The issue for General Electric is that this is all happening at just the wrong time. The firm’s industrial operations seem to be collapsing. Lower demand across a variety of its business lines have continued to hurt GE and now the firm has to deal with legacy insurance issues.
And that makes potential plans to fix General Electric’s problems hard.
Current CEO John Flannery has expressed the willingness to break GE up into a variety of pieces. That includes spinning out its power, aviation, and healthcare units as well as GE Baker Hughes. However, given the insurance mess and recent problems with earnings within its power segment, analysts now fear that a sum of parts calculation is not even worth today’s share price. Barron’s predicts that the GE stock price is really worth about 10% less because of all of this.
Moreover, analysts are worried that there could be more surprises in store from GE. Is GE Aviation Finance hiding anything? GE Capital is already having problems with its oil-lending products. What about the Alstom acquisition? Could there be a write-down coming from that as well, given the poor results? With GE’s fondness for using many esoteric accounting methods — a throwback to the Jack Welch days — anything could be possible.
The point is, General Electric is a black box and no one knows for sure what’s lurking. The insurance hit underscores this fact.
Still Time to Sell GE Stock
In the end, the insurance write-down is just the latest headache for GE — but it could be the most serious. It kind of brings to the light all the potential problems that could be lurking under General Electric’s hood.
For investors, it just signals that, when it comes to industrials, GE might not be the best bang for your buck. The issues should continue for quite some time and the former blue-chip might be dead money at this point.
As of this writing, Aaron Levitt did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.