Last night, my hometown baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, beat the Tampa Bay Devil Rays on a ninth-inning home by 2006 American League MVP Justin Morneau. I mention this because in this morning's conference call regarding General Electric's (NYSE: GE ) first-quarter earnings, CEO Jeffrey Immelt encouraged analysts to think of his company as being in the "first inning of a nine inning-game."
I fully understand the point, but investors who have frustratingly watched GE's stock tread water since the turn of the century,can be forgiven for wondering whether the past seven years were just a painfully long rain delay.
In truth, GE is playing a lot of games all at once. The company is incredibly diverse, involved in areas as far-flung as commercial finance, aeronautics, medical diagnostics, alternative energy, and entertainment. As such, trying to make sense of GE on the basis of a single quarter makes about as much sense as trying to determine which team will win a baseball game after a scoreless first inning.
In GE's 2007 first quarter, the score was essentially zero-zero. The company's earnings from continuing operations for the quarter rose 8%, from $4.2 billion to $4.5 billion year over year, in line with analysts' projections. Per-share earnings growth exceeded that of net income, as the company repurchased roughly 2% of its outstanding shares over the past year. GE's quarterly cash flow from operating activities rose 10% to a massive $7.4 billion. Assets in the company's huge financial services division grew an impressive 22% year over year. The growth in that unit, as well as from a strengthening infrastructure business, helped offset weakness stemming from its plastics and health-care divisions.
Following Immelt's baseball analogy, here's the greater question for investors: What do the next few innings hold? And more importantly, will the company come out on top at the end of the game?
Let's take a look first at the next innings. From my perspective, I like the company's prospects for scoring a run or two in the next inning and beating the overall market. It looks like GE will unload its troubled plastics division sometime in the second or third quarter. In addition to yielding an estimated $10 billion from private equity investors or possibly even a suitor such as BASF (NYSE: BF ) or Income Investor pick Dow Chemical (NYSE: DOW ) , GE will also unload a division that saw its earnings drop by 46% in the past quarter.
As for the game's final outcome, I believe that GE's growing presence in India and China, coupled with its strength in all things energy, offer GE the chance to knock both revenue and profit growth out of the park, delivering a ninth-inning victory for investors who've had the patience to watch the whole game.
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Fool contributor Jack Uldrich likes swinging for the fences, which is why he holds stock in a number of Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendations, but he also owns stock in GE. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.