Time for Major Surgery at GE?

Perhaps there's something moderately reassuring about a company that's a true economic bellwether capping the wildest week in recent market memory by telling us about its results that, while somewhat spotty, could have been worse. But for my money, the news should have included plans for an ambitious restructuring in Connecticut.

On Friday, General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) reported a 22% drop in its net income from the same quarter in 2007. The company's $0.43 earnings per diluted share on $4.31 billion in net income was down from $0.54 on $5.56 billion last year. The primary culprit was its financial services unit, where income slid by 33% to $2.02 billion. But the unit's reduced number still represented a third of the total operating profit.

And there were other areas of both strength and weakness. For instance, the energy infrastructure unit -- which operates under respected brands such as VetcoGray and Hydril -- increased its profits by 31% from a year ago. NBC Universal also benefited from the Beijing Olympics, thereby chalking up 10% profit growth. The consumer and industrial segment, much of which is slated for sale or spinoff to shareholders, recorded  an 82% drop in its profits.

According to CEO Jeff Immelt, the company's total backlog is now at $170 billion, up 20% from a year ago. Beyond that, GE recently raised $15 billion, including selling a $3 billion stake to Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE: BRK-A  ) , and the rest in new equity.

So what we appear to have at GE today is a distinctly bifurcated company. On the one hand, there's the financial segment, which I'm betting will continue to struggle, along with consumer and industrial, which we already know will be jettisoned. On the other, there are the stronger technology and energy units, along with NBC.

Were I in Immelt's shoes, I'd consider severing the financial unit, so that its ongoing weakness -- and potential implosion -- wouldn't be able to destroy the rest of the company if and when. I mean something doesn't appear right. A company this size doesn't raise $15 billion on a whim mere days after saying it wouldn't sell new equity.

I'd then use my kitty to add industrial units that would benefit from an association with my current areas of strength. Somewhat draconian, maybe, but it seems the result would be a far stronger General Electric.  

So GE has followed IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) and Alcoa (NYSE: AA  ) out the big company earnings release door. All in all, as indicated, its results were uneven, so we'll have to look ahead to the likes of United Technologies (NYSE: UTX  ) , DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) , and Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) for better opinions on the U.S. and global economies.

Beyond that, amid the current economic meltdown, and until I hear that radical surgery is planned by Mr. Immelt, I'm not a buyer of the company.  

For related Foolishness:

Berkshire is a recommendation of both Stock Advisor and Inside Value. The Fool also owns some shares of it.

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He does welcome your questions, comments, or criticisms. The Fool has a disclosure policy that never, but never, puts out less than a good effort. 


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  • Report this Comment On October 10, 2008, at 11:16 PM, rd80 wrote:

    David,

    During the conference call they stated the reason for the capital raising was protection against tightening commercial paper markets.

    Even though they haven't had any trouble issuing CP yet, they wanted to have enough cash plus credit lines to cover all outstanding CP. Basically an insurance policy against credit markets locking up.

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