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What's GE Buying Next?

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General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) has been on the prowl lately. Since the company's overexposure to banking during the recession nearly led the century-old GE to the poorhouse in 2008, CEO Jeff Immelt has been focusing on reinvesting capital away from the finance arm and non-core assets like NBCUniversal and toward building up a first-class energy industry portfolio. In only a few years, GE has built up one of the world's largest oil and gas services businesses, and lately it's been forging ahead into mining. What's next for this bluest of blue chips? Jeff Immelt spoke at an annual outlook meeting on Monday to provide some clues.

Oil and gas
General Electric is a relative newcomer to the oil and gas industry, with its own segment tripling since 2005 to $15 billion in revenue. It's now fourth in the industry after international leader Schlumberger (NYSE: SLB  ) and North American heavyweight Halliburton (NYSE: HAL  ) , and close on the heels of Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI  ) , yet it already seems to be executing well compared with its peers.

Weak demand for oil in Europe has hurt the more globally focused Schlumberger, which announced last week that slower drilling activity would hit earnings worse than expected.  Meanwhile, very low prices on natural gas prices in North America have discouraged production, dropping rig counts and depressing business as Halliburton and Baker Hughes wait for the bottom.

GE Oil & Gas, on the other hand, had the advantage of building its business through small bolt-on acquisitions over the past few years, meaning not only was GE buying up companies at the bottom of a cycle for very attractive prices, leading to a lower cost structure, but it could also focus on entering the most profitable segments and geographies. GE has moved aggressively into subsea drilling and production and unconventional fuels and has built out its presence in resource-rich countries like Angola, Nigeria, and Brazil. This focus has allowed GE's oil and gas segment to grow revenue by double digits while expanding margins, and the company expects that to continue.

Jeff Immelt told investors that the oil and gas acquisitions spree would continue in 2013 and gave a profile for the sort of company GE is interested in buying. Immelt is seeking companies that possess technology GE can leverage across other platforms, that have good relationships with customers GE knows, and that operate in less competitive sectors or geographies. GE also wants to drive value by buying up companies that lack GE's brand power, sales channels, and research and development budget, and that could benefit from having access to these resources.

More recently, GE has been looking to enter the mining industry just as it entered the oil and gas industry. Currently, its $2 billion in annual mining equipment and services sales is dwarfed by titans like Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) , but if it can repeat its oil and gas performance, this business could balloon over the next decade. Immelt has set the goal of growing revenue to $5 billion in just the next few years.  GE has plenty of great buying opportunities, as mining equipment suppliers worldwide are under pressure from lower infrastructure spending in China, eroding demand for coal in the U.S., and general weakness in Europe.

That's led many to suggest that General Electric might be eyeing the small, but impressive, mining equipment manufacturer Joy Global (NYSE: JOY  ) , whose CEO, Michael Sutherlin, responded to the speculation with guarded optimism. Joy has a lot of the attributes Immelt is looking for: strength in growing geographies like China, a specialized subset of equipment, and the ability to really benefit from GE's brand and global footprint. Joy, with revenue of more than $5.6 billion, would also immediately surpass Immelt's revenue goal.

However, in other ways, Immelt seemed to imply that Joy would not be on the menu. Most importantly, he said the company's $1 billion to $3 billion target for acquisitions in 2012 would continue through 2013. Joy, currently valued at $6.7 billion, would be a big meal. Immelt also indicated Monday that the company would shy away from competing in new territory with large, capable competitors, saying, "I'm not looking to pick a fight with Intel, right?"

Though Joy is only about a ninth the size of industry leader Caterpillar, Joy focuses more heavily and does compete with Caterpillar, particularly in important growth markets like China. There, both companies are working to offer lower-cost products to bring new customers inside their network. If Immelt is serious about not picking fights with heavyweights, that would seem to rule out purchasing Joy, as they don't come much heavier than Caterpillar.

Playing hard to get?
Of course, Immelt left a good deal of wiggle room. Far from seeming hesitant to compete, Immelt mentioned elsewhere that "with humility ... we can beat Siemens (NASDAQOTH: SIEGY  ) when we put our game face on, right? We can beat Emerson (NYSE: EMR  ) with the right approach." These are world leaders in their fields, and Immelt here doesn't sound like a man afraid of tangling with heavyweights.

And on the price point, Immelt said the number could "creep up" to $4 billion, still not enough to buy Joy but evidence that GE isn't operating by hard and fast rules. In fact, just this week, rumors emerged that GE may buy Italian aerospace company Avio for a final price closer to $5 billion. For a business like Joy, I don't think that makes $8 billion or so look like much of a stretch.

GE will have an interesting 2013 as it continues to bulk up its oil and gas and mining presence. Of course, as an industry-spanning conglomerate, these businesses are only a small part of GE's global energy portfolio. To know whether GE is a buy or a sell, GE investors will want to understand the entire portfolio, and what to watch as the company returns to its roots as an energy industry titan. 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 and helps investors understand whether GE's strategic bets will lead to a boom or a bust. To get started, click here now.

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