It's important to understand the story behind a stock. Today, the biggest story is easily COVID-19 and the global impact of the effort to slow its spread. That's taking a toll on companies far and wide, including both General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO). But when you dig into these two names, there's much more to each of their individual stories. And one of these iconic stocks easily stands above the other.

The coronavirus

General Electric is a cyclical industrial company. As COVID-19 pushed the United States and other nations into economic recessions, demand for the company's products has softened. Moreover, travel has come to a virtual standstill, which is terrible news for GE's aviation business. This division is the company's largest by revenue, accounting for roughly 36% of first-quarter industrial business sales. COVID-19 is a very big issue for GE.

Two people looking at a computer with a stock graph on the screen

Image source: Getty Images.

Coca-Cola is a consumer products company that sells small items to lots of end customers. Generally speaking, its business is fairly resilient to economic downturns, since consumers don't consider a Coke (or their other favorite drinks) an indulgence. Yet COVID-19 has upended business as usual because restaurants, sports venues, and other event-driven businesses have been shut down by government mandate. Those are key points of sale for beverages, representing around 50% of Coca-Cola's business. The loss of those distribution channels is unlikely to be offset by increased purchases for the home. In a late April update, the company noted that volumes were off 25% since the coronavirus started to spread, almost entirely because of a drop in "away from home" sales. In other words, Coca-Cola is facing very real COVID-19 issues as well.   

Bigger problems

That said, it is highly likely that the world will learn to adapt to COVID-19 in some way, which may include finding a way to successfully contain the virus. So the near-term impact that's being seen today is likely to be a disruption that gets worked through over time. In that scenario, Coca-Cola's business will go back to some semblance of pre-coronavirus normal. And travel will eventually recover, aiding GE's aviation business. The economy, meanwhile, will come out of the recession it entered in February 2020 and the rest of GE's divisions will start to do better as well. 

There's one problem with that last statement. GE's power and renewable energy divisions (together about 40% of first-quarter revenue) have been struggling for years. The issues they face are not entirely related to COVID-19 or the recession. Each of the two divisions used more cash than they produced in 2019. The results were similarly weak in 2018. A "solution" to COVID-19 doesn't solve all of GE's problems.   

Foundations matter

That's not the only issue GE is dealing with; it also has a debt-heavy balance sheet. GE's 7.1 times financial debt-to-EBITDA ratio is much higher than Coca-Cola's 3.2 times. It's also materially higher than peers like Honeywell and Emerson Electric, which are in the 1.8 times space. To be fair, Coca-Cola's financial debt-to-EBITDA ratio is above direct competitor PepsiCo, but not nearly by the same margin -- Pepsi's ratio is just under three times or so. In other words, Coca-Cola and Pepsi are in the same ballpark while GE's balance sheet is in notably worse shape than its peers. 

GE Financial Debt to EBITDA (TTM) Chart

GE Financial Debt to EBITDA (TTM) data by YCharts

This isn't meant to suggest that GE isn't working hard to right this problem. It has been selling assets to reduce debt and has made a great deal of progress in its efforts to improve the strength of its balance sheet. However, it clearly still has much work to do before it is back in line with its competitors. Coca-Cola's financial position isn't nearly as worrisome and, thus, isn't an ongoing issue. 

An easy winner

At this point, it should be pretty obvious that GE has much bigger and longer-term problems to deal with than Coca-Cola. The industrial icon is very much a turnaround stock at this point, which may interest some investors. However, most long-term investors would likely be better off sticking to Coca-Cola. Yes, COVID-19 will impact the drink maker's business, but, assuming the old saying that "this too shall pass" applies, it really doesn't face too many problems beyond this issue.