General Electric (NYSE:GE) had a truly transformative year in 2016. The company made progress toward its goals... and also managed to put some of its past behind it.
Here are its three biggest moves of the year, and why they're so important to the future of the company.
1. Ditching the dishwashers
At the beginning of the year, things looked grim for GE's efforts to sell its low-margin consumer appliance business. A deal with Sweden's Electrolux had fallen through, killed by regulators, and there didn't seem to be another potential buyer on the horizon. The sale was scheduled to provide nearly 10% of the $35 billion in cash that the company was planning to return to shareholders.
But then along came Chinese appliance maker Haier, which was looking to gain a foothold in the U.S. market. Not only did it purchase the unit, but it ponied up $5.4 billion to do it... and all in cash, to boot. The deal turned out to be even sweeter for GE than the one the regulators killed.
This was a big move for General Electric in two ways. First, of course, it showed that GE was serious about its refocus on its industrial units, and was willing to jettison even its most iconic products in pursuit of that vision. Second, it showed that GE could be successful in executing that vision and was able to find buyers even for its underperforming units.
2. Cutting up the credit cards
Although GE spun off its consumer credit business as Synchrony Financial back in 2015, GE Capital was still considered a systemically important financial institution (SIFI) by the U.S. government. The trouble was, while it was very clear how to be designated a SIFI, the government hadn't really provided any framework for getting oneself un-designated. Worse, at its most recent annual reevaluation, the Financial Stability Oversight Council had declined to un-designate GE Capital.
This put GE in an uncomfortable limbo. It had been selling off GE Capital's other assets left and right, and was amassing a big stockpile of cash in GE Capital -- cash it was planning to return to shareholders. But the SIFI rules limited how much of that cash could be returned to the parent company. As long as the SIFI designation was in place, GE wasn't going to be able to return its promised $35 billion to shareholders.
In March, GE officially filed for rescission status with the FSOC, and finally, at the end of June, that rescission was granted. This was huge for the company, not just because it allowed it to move that cash around, but also because it freed up the company to take on more debt if needed to make acquisitions. It also got GE out from under more stringent SIFI rules that were set to go into effect in 2018.
3. Going for the (black) gold
In terms of an impact on the company's bottom line, though, the biggest move of the year was the company's decision to merge its oil and gas unit with oil-field services company Baker Hughes (NYSE:BHI) and spin off the resulting "New Baker Hughes" into a separate company, which would become the second-largest oil and gas services company in the world (eclipsing Halliburton, which currently holds the spot).
Although the new entity will be 62.5% owned by GE, separating the oil and gas unit from the rest of the company will probably benefit shareholders. In the third quarter of 2016, GE's oil and gas revenue was down 25% from Q3 2015 -- the worst performance of the company's industrial segments. This wasn't a case of just one bad quarter, either. Over the first nine months of the year, oil and gas revenue was down 21%. That offset good performance elsewhere in the company's portfolio and had a negative impact on the overall bottom line. With the merger, the company will allow its oil and gas business to rise or fall (hopefully rise, once oil prices stabilize) on its own, and will gain economies of scale to boot.
Despite all of these transformative moves by GE -- surprisingly transformative, for such a large, well-established company -- the stock price has barely budged, up less than 2% for the year. This could be a buying opportunity for investors looking to pick up some shares before the oil and gas spinoff and to take advantage of potential shareholder-friendly moves by the company now that it's unburdened by its former SIFI status.