Could GE Bring Down the U.S. Financial System?

As regulators step up their efforts to rein in the banking industry via more stringent legislation, other companies are also getting a closer look. Dodd-Frank's new creation, the Financial Stability Oversight Council, is currently peering at non-banks such as AIG (NYSE: AIG  ) and General Electric's (NYSE: GE  ) financial section, GE Capital Corp., and weighing whether they, too, deserve to be categorized as a systemic risk to the financial system.

AIG may seem like a no-brainer, considering its near-death experience during the financial crisis. But GE Capital, as one portion of a giant conglomerate, is not quite so obvious. Does this entity have enough clout to impact the economy, as well as similarities with the megabanks, to merit this extra scrutiny? I wondered this myself and decided to take a look. Interestingly, I found that the FSOC may be right on target.

GE Capital: A heavy hitter in the financial arena
Back in 2008, GE's financial arm was big large enough that it could have been the seventh-largest bank in the U.S., and provided half of the entire company's profits. GE used the segment to make up losses in other areas of the company, and things appeared to be going swimmingly.

Then the other shoe dropped. Since GE Capital got the financing for its banking activities the same way many other banks did -- in the unregulated shadow banking system -- it fell just as hard as the bigger banks when the bottom fell out of the repurchase agreement market and credit dried up.

Today, GECC is mostly recovered, and its parent company has pared down its asset base quite a bit. Still, the unit ranks as No. 8 in the big-bank line-up, with its $559 billion of assets outweighing those of large regional banks like US Bancorp (NYSE: USB  ) and PNC Financial (NYSE: PNC  ) , whose assets total $353 billion and $300 billion, respectively.

Another interesting bit involves the list of too-big-to-fail banks that need to bulk up on capital, published by the Financial Stability Board late last year. While biggies such as Bank of America (NYSE: BAC  ) and Citigroup (NYSE: C  ) made the list, so did State Street Bank  (NYSE: STT  ) -- which, with an asset base of $200 billion, is dwarfed by that of GECC.

One Fool's take
To paraphrase an old adage, if it acts like a bank, nearly fails like a bank, and is as big as some systemically important banks, then it probably should be treated as a bank -- and one that could pose risks to the economy if it fails. Although GE Capital has largely repaired itself since the crash, there are still problems. Last spring, Moody's noted that the company's funding model still harbors much risk, and capital levels could be higher. GECC is currently working on the latter, as it moves closer to acquiring $7 billion in cushioning deposits from insurer Metlife (NYSE: MET  ) .

Could GECC bring down the entire economy if it failed? Certainly, no more than any other similarly sized institution could. But history has shown that these crises don't occur in a vacuum, and the risks that affect one institution usually affect most others as well. GECC is subject to the same business model weaknesses and vulnerabilities as other big banks, which, to my mind, is enough reason to consider it a risk -- and a candidate for extra scrutiny.

For GE, the recent financial crisis struck a blow, but management took advantage of the market's dip to make strategic bets in energy. If you're a GE investor, you need to understand how these bets could drive this company to become the world's infrastructure leader. At the same time, you need to be aware of the threats to GE's portfolio. To help, we're offering comprehensive coverage for investors in a premium report on General Electric, in which our industrials analyst breaks down GE's multiple businesses. You'll find reasons to buy or sell GE, and you'll receive continuing updates as major events unfold during the year. To get started, click here now.

Fool contributor Amanda Alix has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup, General Electric, and PNC Financial Services and has options on AIG. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend AIG. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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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