General Electric to Retail Finance: Get Out!

Although we don't believe in timing the market or panicking over daily movements, we do like to keep an eye on market changes -- just in case they're material to our investing thesis.

Stocks hit another record high on Friday, with the S&P 500 and the narrower, price-weighted Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) gaining 0.4% and 0.5%, respectively. Both indexes are sitting at all-time highs. One factor that may have helped boost stocks today: The market appears to have given the nod to Janet Yellen's performance before the Senate Banking Committee as both sufficiently dovish and sufficiently competent to win the necessary votes for a confirmation.

General Electric's retail therapy
Dow component General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) continues to slim down its financing arm, GE Capital, as the industrial-financial conglomerate announced on Friday what executives view as the "last major action" to reduce its dependency on financial profits: the spin-off of the North American Retail Finance business (hereafter "Retail Finance").

Retail Finance makes consumer loans and issues private-label credit cards, including for Wal-Mart and Gap; last year, the business earned $2.2 billion, contributing 16% of GE's total profits. Last August, General Electric was reported to be planning a spin-off, but the company provided details of the proposed transaction in a filing with the SEC today. The plan calls for a two-stage transaction, with an initial public offering of 20% of the equity in 2014, followed by a distribution of shares to electing GE shareholders in 2015 (in exchange for GE shares).

GE Capital, which houses Retail Finance, had been the company's growth engine during the credit boom, but it almost proved its undoing during the financial crisis as investors (and lenders) became concerned about the size and opacity of its balance sheet. At its height, GE Capital contributed almost half of General Electric's total profits; only last year, that proportion was still 45%. Last December, CEO Jeffrey Immelt told investors and analysts he expected it to fall to 35% by 2015, and he has pledged to bring it down to 30% (Immelt ought to be properly motivated -- part of his compensation is tied to how quickly he can shrink GE Capital).

Discover Financial Services (NYSE: DFS  ) , which is thought to be the nearest comparable publicly traded company to Retail Finance, trades at 10.5 times next 12 months' earnings-per-share estimate. That compares unfavorably to the 15.6 multiple at which GE currently trades, which suggests that Retail Finance is weighing on GE's valuation and, were it to be hived off, the market would be willing to award GE shares yet a higher multiple. We may have caught a glimpse of that today, as GE shares rose 0.8% against just 0.3% for both the S&P 500 and the S&P 500 Industrials index.

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