General Electric: Good News, Bad Timing

Heading into the holiday weekend, General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) delivered an earnings report that, were it made of chocolate, should have brought a smile to any child's face. The company announced its third straight dividend increase in under a year. It grew first-quarter industrial sales 8%. Firmwide revs were up more than 6%, and net profits leapt 77% to $0.31 per share.

Why, then, are these shares now falling in price for their second straight day? Opinions vary, and if it's opinions you seek, Yahoo! Finance has racked up nearly 150 separate stories on Thursday's report, each espousing its own theory to explain the disconnect. So what's going on here?

Bad timing
On the face of it, there was little to complain about in GE's report. Growth is back, as planned. Acquisitions aimed at rebuilding the industrial base are proceeding apace, as GE spends down its $30 billion war chest to challenge companies like Schlumberger, Baker Hughes, and Halliburton in energy.

The problem is: That's not where the money's at.

GE got itself in its present fix by spending too much time investing in arcane financial instruments, with the result that GE Capital grew to dominate its income statement. When the financial bubble burst, management had a quick rethink and began backtracking, downsizing GE Capital and shifting its focus to GE Energy.

Would you like to take two guesses which GE business did best last quarter, and which didn't?

That's right: GE owed the bulk of its success in Q1 to the very financial business it's currently gutting. (It's not the only industrial company reporting improved profits from finance. Harley-Davidson's (NYSE: HOG  ) finance profits grew 155%, and even Textron (NYSE: TXT  ) pared its credit losses. Seems the same Fed programs that helped save the bacon of bankers like Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) , are also pulling industrial finance out of the fire.) At GE Capital, profits more than tripled (to $1.8 billion). Meanwhile, GE's Energy Infrastructure division was the only business segment reporting weaker profits.

Foolish takeaway
Mind you, I'm not criticizing GE's retreat from a finance-focus, and its return to industry. I actually approve, and expect industrial profits to im-prove as the Fukishima Daiichi disaster combines with still-low nat-gas prices to improve sales of GE gas turbines worldwide. But if investors see GE leaning on finance for profits, remember what happened last time it did this, and treat the shares with skepticism? That's understandable, too.

Will GE succeed in reinventing itself? Follow the story on Fool.com -- add GE to your Watchlist.

The Fool owns shares of Textron, but Fool contributor Rich Smith does not own (nor is he short) shares of any company named above. You can find him on CAPS, publicly pontificating under the handle TMFDitty, where he's currently ranked No. 616 out of more than 170,000 members.

The Fool owns shares of Textron.  Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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