As Fools know only too well, the current economic apocalypse -- which seems to worsen by the day -- began with housing, spread next to financials and the broader credit markets, and now is resulting in cutbacks by a steady stream of industrial corporations. In the latter category, DuPont (NYSE: DD ) , Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT ) , and Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) , which is cutting 13% of its workforce, are among those pulling in their horns amid our sloppy economy.
However, if you had to pick one industrial bellwether that continues to garner more attention from the investing public than any of its mates, you'd probably give the nod to General Electric (NYSE: GE ) . In many respects you'd be right. GE manufacturers everything from big compressors to jet engines to sophisticated medical diagnostic equipment and home appliances. But the company also falls into the finance category through its biggest unit, GE Capital Services, and it's in that arena that it's working hardest to shore up its circumstances.
To an extent, much of the focus that particular sector receives stems from the continuing shakiness of much of the financial world, but it also relates to the relative size of the capital unit. In the most recent quarter, GE Capital contributed about 37% of GE's total segment revenues, but saw its unit profits slide by 33%. In part as a result, last month management promised to take several "tough, but prudent" steps to strengthen -- and shrink -- GE Capital.
Sure enough, the company started off the New Year by appearing to be good for its word. This week alone, it's sold $730 million in receivables to Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) and shed some European consumer finance units to Spain's Banco Santander (NYSE: SAN ) . It also sold $10 billion of FDIC-backed debt in the biggest such sale since the new government guarantee was launched in November.
So is GE becoming worth your investment shekels? Unfortunately, my response remains along the lines of "probably not yet." There's still no reason to believe that the finance unit is out of the woods completely, and, beyond that, recall my comments above about the plague that's spreading through the nation's industrial sector.
And while GE shares can be enticing, with their yield hovering around 7.5%, there are some rumblings that the $1.24 annual dividend and triple-A credit rating may not both be sustainable. A cut in either wouldn't be pretty for the company's shares in these market conditions.
GE carries a four-star rating by Motley Fool CAPS players. Why not add your vote to the mix?
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