Early this year, General Electric (NYSE:GE) CEO John Flannery unofficially confirmed what many had suspected for months … at least a partial breakup of the industrial giant was inevitable. His not-entirely cryptic comment, “We are looking aggressively at the best structure or structures for our portfolio to maximize the potential of our businesses” could have only had a limited number of interpretations.
Surprisingly, GE stock didn’t rally on the news. Perhaps the $6.2 billion charge stemming from what was ultimately poor actuarial work from its insurance arm proved too alarming. Or, perhaps the market didn’t believe General Electric was really going to start parsing itself up in an effort to save itself in pieces. And, perhaps investors still weren’t convinced when it chose to sell its locomotive business to Westinghouse Air Brake Technologies (NYSE:WAB).
As of this weekend’s whispers though, it’s getting very difficult to say GE isn’t getting serious about splitting itself up.
As of the most recent look, the possibility has only been suggested by “people familiar with the matter.” In terms of credibility though, it’s not difficult to believe there’s some truth in the reports that GE is close to selling its industrial gas engines business to private equity firm Advent International. Total take? A rumored $3 billion, at least.
It’s another step toward raising $20 billion via the sale of assets … funds that could and would be used to pay down debt.
However, the estimated $77 billion worth of debt weighing down the balance sheet isn’t as simple as it may seem. The sale of business units also sheds General Electric’s capacity to create revenue, and cash flow, and its pension plan is presently underfunded to the tune of $29 billion.
While less debt always lowers interest expenses, GE only paid about $1.3 billion in interest payments last quarter — the recent average, give or take. That’s a relatively small piece of last quarter’s $28.7 billion worth of revenue. If it wanted to save money, it could take aim at the $4.2 billion it spent on selling and administration expenses last quarter, or figure out ways to lowers its cost-of-goods-sold. That cost the company $21.5 billion last quarter.
And yet, its debt load may still be the easiest item to address first. But that’s not necessarily the priority.
Although less debt will ultimately leave General Electric in a better position to improve cash flow, GE stock holders innately know that alone isn’t a fix to the company’s true underlying challenges. If it wants to thrive it’s also going to have to grow the core businesses it intends to keep, which are aviation, healthcare and power.
Aviation and healthcare are certainly holding their own. Riding a wave of new aircraft-purchasing activity, sales for its aviation arm grew 13% during Q1, ramping up that division’s profit to the tune of 26%. It earned $1.6 billion, all told. Meanwhile, its healthcare unit posted a profit of $735 million on $4.7 billion in revenue … an 11% improvement in its bottom line.
As for power, however, this all-important unit saw revenue plunge 29% to $5.6 billion last quarter, while its profit total fell 38% to only $273 million.
In May, Flannery warned current and would-be owners of GE stock that the power division could continue to underperform for a long time, with the company proceeding in “a very deliberate way and thoughtful way” with the beleaguered unit. The gas turbine business reportedly being sold to Advent International is part of General Electric’s power arm, perhaps getting the company out of a business it knew couldn’t be salvaged.
Bottom Line on GE Stock
Only time will tell if asset sales were the right call, or if they merely crimped the company’s cash flow that could have been used to invest in viable growth opportunities. The eventual answer will likely include good and bad news.
At least one analyst, however, sees more good than bad on the horizon. William Blair analysts recently penned a five-point reason why the firm is optimistic about the company’s future. Among those reasons: “The performance of aviation, healthcare, and potentially its oil and gas businesses, which now comprise more over 70% of GE’s estimated 2018 earnings and free cash flow, is notably better than plan in 2018, offsetting weakness at power.”
In fact, William Blair believes that the removal of GE stock as a Dow Jones component, to be replaced by Walgreens (NASDAQ:WBA), could actually be a capitulatory event for the stock.
How long that ensuing bounce lasts, however, will still be a function of the fixes Flannery can put in place. Even being completely debt-free wouldn’t make General Electric the powerhouse it once was.
As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.
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