Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Is It Time to Buy General Electric Company Stock?

By Adam Levine-Weinberg - Updated Apr 20, 2018 at 9:50AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

General Electric stock has fallen a long way since hitting a multiyear peak above $30 in 2016. Here's why it's starting to look attractive for long-term investors.

This article was updated on April 6, 2018, and originally published on Nov. 15, 2017.

On Nov. 13, 2017, U.S. industrial giant General Electric (GE -0.74%) held an investor day event at which new CEO John Flannery unveiled his strategy for the company. The stakes were high, as GE had released a terrible earnings report a month earlier and slashed its 2017 earnings per share forecast.

However, investors didn't take kindly to what Flannery had to say at the 2017 investor day -- especially his decision to slash GE's dividend by 50%. As a result, General Electric stock fell 13% in the next two days. It tumbled another 25% by the beginning of April 2018, due to growing worries about GE's long-term liabilities and the threat of a U.S.-China trade war. After this big plunge, General Electric stock is starting to look like an interesting long-term investment opportunity.

Getting smaller -- and simpler

General Electric is one of the last big conglomerates in the U.S. Recently, its complexity has been a problem. The company has allowed problems to fester in many of its businesses because management's attention has been spread too thin.

Flannery intends to fix this issue by narrowing GE's focus. Right now, the company reports revenue and profit from seven different segments, excluding its GE Capital financing business. These are: Power, Renewable Energy, Oil and Gas, Aviation, Healthcare, Transportation, and Lighting. Going forward, Flannery wants GE to focus on the power (including renewables), aviation, and healthcare markets.

A gas turbine being built in a factory

Power will be one of GE's three main businesses going forward. Image source: General Electric.

To execute this shift, General Electric is planning for roughly $20 billion of divestitures by the end of 2019. This will include the entire transportation and lighting businesses, along with pieces of other business segments.

Additionally, GE will eventually exit its investment in Baker Hughes, a GE Company (BKR -2.48%), which was formed in mid-2017 from the merger of GE's oil and gas business with Baker Hughes. However, GE isn't allowed to sell its 62.5% stake in the "new" Baker Hughes until at least July 2019, so this part of its business will stay put for now.

The planned divestitures will enable management to devote its full attention to Flannery's stated priorities of free cash flow production and capital allocation. If these efforts succeed, GE should return to solid earnings growth after 2018.

Wall Street seems to hate the stock now

While retail investors were particularly upset by GE's deep dividend cut, Wall Street analysts have had other gripes about the company's turnaround plan.

First, some analysts have been calling for a full breakup of General Electric. However, while the company is slimming down, at the end of the day, it will still be a conglomerate. As a result, these analysts believe that GE isn't being bold enough in reinventing itself.

Second, several analysts were disappointed by GE's cost-cutting targets. Given the depth of problems in the power segment in particular, the target of removing $1 billion of structural costs from the power business in 2018 seems insufficient.

Third, despite having fallen more than 55% from its 52-week high, General Electric stock isn't dirt cheap. The company's guidance calls for adjusted EPS of $1.00-$1.07 in 2018, but analysts on average expect adjusted EPS of just $0.96. Even at its 52-week low of $12.73, General Electric stock traded for about 13 times forward earnings.

The best businesses are growing in importance

Despite these disappointments, there is one major reason for optimism: General Electric's two best-performing businesses are growing in importance to the company. In a slimmed-down version of GE, they would shine through even more.

The smaller of these is the healthcare unit. Flannery himself turned GE's healthcare division around a few years ago, and it is now delivering steady revenue and profit growth. In 2017, its segment profit rose 9% year over year to $3.45 billion.

GE's best business of all is its aviation division. GE, including its joint venture CFM International, is the largest jet engine manufacturer in the world. This is a growing business, thanks to rising global demand for air travel and GE's cozy relationship with Boeing (BA -1.01%).

GE engines will power Boeing's next-generation 777X, and roughly 65% of buyers for the 787 Dreamliner are choosing the GE engine option for that plane. A planned increase in the Boeing 787 production rate and growth of the installed base (which drives high-margin service revenue) will support growth in this wholly owned business over the next few years.

The CFM joint venture business is even more promising. Its new LEAP engine is the exclusive powerplant for Boeing's 737 MAX and has more than 50% market share on Airbus' competing A320neo. The result is a backlog of roughly 14,000 LEAP engine orders that is still increasing. This virtually guarantees a long period of growth, with engine production ramping up over the next few years and service revenue following thereafter.

A rendering of a Boeing 737 MAX

Strong demand for the 737 MAX is boosting GE's aircraft engine sales. Image source: Boeing.

In 2017, the aviation business posted a segment profit of $6.64 billion, up 9% year over year. GE expects another high-single-digit profit increase for the aviation segment in 2018.

In the fourth quarter of 2017, aviation and healthcare together drove 83% of GE's industrial segment profit, up from 61% in the first half of the year. Thus, the healthiest parts of GE are quickly becoming its main profit drivers, which bodes well for an eventual return to profit growth for the company.

A stock for patient investors

Even if the aviation and healthcare businesses continue to grow steadily, GE's turnaround will take time. Flannery believes that GE will be able to improve the power business significantly in the next year or two, but a full turnaround will take longer. In the meantime, segment profit for GE Power is expected to fall by another 25% in 2018 as the company cuts production to align with the current demand environment.

However, from that lower 2018 baseline, GE will be well positioned for long-term earnings growth driven by the secular tailwinds supporting its aviation and healthcare segments. Margin improvement in the power business -- whenever it comes -- will just be icing on the cake.

GE will also be able to improve its balance sheet with the proceeds from its asset sales. If it sells off its Baker Hughes stake in a few years, that will bring in an additional windfall. Based on a $30 stock price for Baker Hughes, GE's portion of the company would be worth more than $20 billion. With oil prices on the rise and merger synergies on the way, that value could increase significantly.

General Electric stock could recover much of its recent losses over the next few years if GE gets earnings growing again as expected. As a result, I have been gradually accumulating shares since December 2017. General Electric shares will likely remain volatile as investors continue to digest management's turnaround plan, so this stock is a prime candidate for "averaging in": i.e., buying shares in smaller chunks over a period of several months.

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Stocks Mentioned

General Electric Company Stock Quote
General Electric Company
$61.57 (-0.74%) $0.46
The Boeing Company Stock Quote
The Boeing Company
$136.31 (-1.01%) $-1.39
Baker Hughes, a GE company Stock Quote
Baker Hughes, a GE company
$27.50 (-2.48%) $0.70

*Average returns of all recommendations since inception. Cost basis and return based on previous market day close.

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 07/06/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.