What Do General Electric's Results Say About the Market's Future?

The overall market is having a quiet day, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) up 0.10% in late trading. Weekly jobless claims came in at 304,000, slightly less than the 315,000 estimate from economists, but there wasn't any earth-shattering economic news today.

General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) did report earnings this morning, and as a big industrial supplier its results can often give investors a feel for where the economy is headed.

GE's revenue and profit decline on NBCUniversal sale
GE said first-quarter revenue fell 2% to $34.2 billion and net income dropped 15% to $3 billion, or $0.33 per share. But that followed the sale of NBCUniversal last year; a more detailed look at the numbers shows some positive signs, which is why the stock was up 2.2% today.

GE's energy business has driven growth in Q1 but there's questions about if that will last long-term. Image courtesy of GE.

The big news was that industrial profit was up 12% and revenue growth hit 8%. Oil and gas drove the increase with a 37% increase in profit to $446 million. Aviation helped the industrial results as well, with a 19% jump in profit to $1.1 billion on strong demand for aircraft engines.  

Increased earnings from industrial businesses highlight a growing energy sector in the U.S., as well as strong demand for aircraft components and power and water. These are fundamental growth drivers in the U.S. and a strong foundation of demand will be good for the entire economy.

The flip side to positive results this quarter is GE's less than bullish outlook for the rest of the year. Backlog only rose slightly in the first quarter to $245 billion and industrial segment growth for the full year is expected at 4% to 7%, which is down from 8% in the quarter. That indicates slowing growth throughout the year.

What does GE say about the market
GE's results today tell us that we're in for a steady year in 2014, but not an impressive one. Oil and gas, which has accounted for a majority of economic growth since the recession, is seeing lower capital spending as oil companies reevaluate returns on multibillion-dollar projects. Even the health-care market doesn't look particularly strong in 2014 as costs are pinched from all sides.

GE is a solid investment, and its 3.4% dividend yield is attractive in this slow-growth environment, but I also get the impression that we shouldn't expect a lot of GDP or employment growth this year.

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