General Electric has about $300 billion in debt on its balance sheet, but that's not going to keep this cash-flush company from asking for another helping. And that's especially true in the midst of an attractive lending environment.
When GE announced it would issue $3 billion in additional debt this week, investors clamored to get their hands on it. According to The Wall Street Journal's sources, the order book for GE's bonds and notes was oversubscribed within 45 minutes of opening, and the total requests for GE's debt reached $11 billion.
That's impressive demand, even for a blue chip with a rating of AA+ from Standard & Poor's. For buyers, however, it's an opportunity that's not all-too-common, at least when it comes to buying bonds of the parent company. If you look closely at GE's balance sheet, most of the debt outstanding relates to its financial arm, GE Capital. Currently, GE Capital accounts for $210 billion of the $222 billion worth of long-term debt that appears on GE's balance sheet as of the 2013 year-end.
Such a substantial debt load, of course, is quite common for a banking operation. Consider that the top three companies with debt maturing in 2014 are GE, JPMorgan Chase, and Bank of America. In total, banks account for 58% -- $249 billion out of $427 billion -- of the total corporate debt maturities this year.
At GE, The sheer size of its banking arm makes it hard for analysts to gauge the company's debt burden relative to its peers. For example, the banking arm skews GE's debt-to-equity ratio such that it's nearly double the industry's at large, reflecting 1.7 versus the 0.9 average of its peers, according to Morningstar.
But in case you're wondering whether additional debt could be a burden on GE, fear not. Despite facing $35 billion in debt maturities this year, GE has plenty of flexibility to refinance if needed. Secondly, the company's interest coverage ratio, which determines how easily a company can pay interest, is a healthy 2.6 as of year-end. So long as a company hovers above 1.5, implying earnings (EBIT) that are one and a half times its interest expense, you can sleep sound at night as a shareholder.
In fact, shareholders might have reasons to praise the company's decision. Taking advantage of cheap money can provide GE with more ammunition with which to buy back shares, pursue acquisitions, or boost its already chunky dividend. As GE's spokesman Seth Martin noted, the issuance coincides with GE's "strategy to be opportunistic in accessing markets, particularly with interest rates at relatively low levels."
GE didn't specify exactly what the $2.25 billion in 30-year bonds and $750 million in 10-year notes would be used for, but investors can expect the recent buyback-dividend-acquisition trend to continue. In 2013, the company returned $18.2 billion in cash to shareholders through buybacks and dividends while completing $9 billion in acquisitions.
So long as GE continues to put its cash to good use, shareholders should be OK with the company going back to a plentiful well for a refill every now and again.