Back in April, CEOs like General Electric's (NYSE:GE) Jeffrey Immelt were nearly fretting over a dismal European market. As the Wall Street Journal noted following a lackluster first quarter for GE, a 17% decline in European orders had "sapped its industrial businesses, a downturn that could challenge [Immelt's] ability to meet performance targets."
Oh, how the tide has shifted. The same European markets that cast a cloud over GE in April contributed to a 17% increase in orders in the latest quarter. What's more, management seems to be setting a high hurdle for the rest of 2013, stating that today's robust earnings growth will "accelerate in the fourth quarter." Can the industrial giant live up to the expectations going forward? Let's take a closer look.
Why General Electric's raising the bar
Without question, General Electric's third quarter impressed analysts and the market at large. The stock has bounced 6% higher since GE announced earnings two weeks ago, while its industrial peers like Honeywell and United Technologies have dipped during that timeframe.
Could this be a turning point where GE pulls ahead of the pack? It's too early to tell how the year will shake out for all three, but GE does seem to be recovering in key markets like Europe.
As Immelt pointed out on the conference call, "Total orders in the US and Europe were both robust, and seven growth regions had double-digit orders growth." So much for stagnating economic growth, even in the mature, developed world.
Apparently GE's end customers are slightly more optimistic about the future, a fact that baffled many of the analysts on the call. As Scott Davis from Barclays pointed out, "I really wasn't aware that anybody in the world was buying a gas turbine right now, or distributed power, for that matter."
GE's management team responded by breaking out the various segments that showed promise -- namely, aeroderivatives and wind units -- and setting an overwhelmingly positive tone during the earnings conference. Between expanding margins, growing orders, and a built-in "hedge" in the company's fourth-quarter plan, all signs point to GE closing out the year in style. Industrial earnings, for example, posted double-digit gains in the third quarter, and Immelt noted "we expect a stronger fourth quarter in that regard."
So the choppy waters have subsided -- for now -- but can this calm possibly last? If this question baffles General Electric's execs at times, they don't seem to show it. And that's because these unexpected results could be the new status quo.
Why the market's so confused
As I pointed out at the end of the 2012 fiscal year, shifting gears at GE is difficult. And an even more daunting task is trying to coax this giant, lumbering company into making more nimble turns. Nevertheless, GE's done just that, though it's been slow going.
Thus far, 2013 has been a microcosm of the last five years for the company. GE's made progress toward its goals, but the results have barely begun to show up in the financials. For investors and the media, it's been difficult to measure GE's success over both timeframes.
Is GE Capital really shrinking? At this point, it still rakes in 31% of the company's revenue, and nearly half of its net income. What gives?
The same can be said for certain energy businesses. As I noted, they will drive future growth for General Electric -- yet energy management's profit dipped 57% in the third quarter.
Given the mixed results, the market's confusion is understandable.
Why Foolish investors should keep their cool
All in all, however, GE's on much better footing today. Each step backward is followed by two steps forward. And the great balance across GE's various businesses and global regions is allowing it to cope with modest economic growth.
As GE deals with what Immelt calls the "new normal" volatility in global economies, investors can expect some unpredictability with GE's stock. Quarter-to-quarter stability might be a thing of the past, but investors will be satisfied so long as it's an upward climb.
After GE's unenthusiastic first quarter this year, an Edward Jones analyst described the market's reaction as follows: "Wall Street doesn't like to hear that things will get better later, it wants to start seeing results ... It is going to be a long slog to really get the company moving more toward an industrial division that is boosting profits."
That "long slog" will continue. But I think Foolish investors will be rewarded for their patience.