One of the most common criticisms of a massive company like General Electric (NYSE:GE) is that it's simply too big to grow. This is indeed a valid concern.

GE boasts a market capitalization of $256 billion, which makes it the seventh largest company in the world, according to Forbes. Though size has its advantages, it can also be a hindrance. Just ask blue chips like IBM, McDonald's, and Coca-Cola after their latest abysmal quarterly results.

Meanwhile, GE's recent sales trend is pointing in the wrong direction.

Source: GE SEC 10-K filings.

Although much of the decline in sales is due to "the General's" intent to shed some unwieldy banking businesses, that process has seemed to move along at a snail's pace.

Many believe it will bear fruit -- eventually -- but the question is, when? And what can investors expect from a new-and-improved (and GE Capital-light) General Electric? Will the sales trajectory bounce back or are GE's best days behind it?

Here's what GE's CEO Jeff Immelt had to say in response to the "too big to grow" argument posed by Barron's last year:

We have the biggest backlog of new business in the company's history. We're in industries that are growing much faster than local economies. And we have the best exposure to emerging markets of any company in the world.

On the surface, it's hard to refute his points. GE's backlog is a staggering $250 billion, which compares with annual sales of just under $150 billion.

The industries it focuses on -- energy, healthcare, transportation, and aviation -- have a lot of potential to grow in up-and-coming regions of the world. According to Morningstar, aviation demand tends to outpace GDP by 1.5% over the long haul. And I would be surprised if that stat didn't hold true for the others as the global middle class continues to swell.

What's more, 36% of GE's sales stem from fast-growing markets outside of the sluggish U.S. and European economies.

Following the money
So, Immelt's case holds water, but before we cede the point entirely, let's look at GE's growth prospects from a different perspective: What is GE doing internally today to achieve above-average growth tomorrow?

In other words, is GE putting its money where its mouth is?

To answer that question, we need to look under GE's hood. It's crucial to understand whether Immelt's juicing up the engine -- and thereby giving GE more horsepower -- or simply repairing the parts as they wear out over time. In business terms, this is the difference between a capital investment that replaces a depreciating asset and a capital investment that fuels a company's sales prospects.

More specifically, we'll be looking at "capital expenditures" adjusted for a couple of variables, with an emphasis on what GE's spending looked like in 2013.

So let's jump right in. First off, using data from S&P Cap IQ, we'll find that GE's capital expenditures indeed outpaced depreciation last year, as shown in "Step 1" in the chart below:

Source: S&P CapIQ and GE's annual SEC filings.

This is a good sign that GE's not resting on its laurels and simply maintaining its industrial businesses. Instead, it's reinvesting excess cash in the areas where it sees the most promise.

To further drill down into the cash flows, I pulled some additional data shown in "Step 2." What I found was that GE's investments stretched beyond traditional purchases of "plant, property, and equipment" and can be measured in research and development spending and acquisitions. When you factor in these forward-looking outlays, GE seems to have a clear eye on the future: In 2013 alone, GE dedicated nearly $14 billion to long-term investments in the company.

R&D, of course, has always been the lifeblood of this engineering powerhouse, but acquisitions have also played a prominent role as the economy has rebounded. By utilizing both avenues, GE's sending a clear signal to investors that it's not satisfied with simply paying out dividends and buying back shares to satisfy stockholders. Instead, this is a company that sees growth returning in the near future.

And that's a good sign. As my colleague Patrick Morris has pointed out, GE's equipped with a quiet cash machine in its banking unit, GE Capital, which has returned an impressive $13 billion back to the parent since 2012.

At the same time, two key measures of the company's ability to turn money into more money -- return on equity and return on invested capital -- have been steadily increasing since bottoming out after the financial crisis.







Return on Equity %






Return on Invested Capital %






Source: Morningstar.

Where does GE go from here?
All things considered, GE has a healthy pipeline of products and services, and it continues to find new opportunities to expand that pipeline, particularly in high-growth markets. Don't expect it to sit back and allow the growth engine to wither away in the garage any time soon.

This is good news for investors, particularly if you were concerned that GE might share a fate with IBM, Coca-Cola, and McDonald's. Unlike its Dow peers, I think GE has a clear vision of where it plans to go and how it will get there.

Isaac Pino, CPA, owns shares of General Electric Company. The Motley Fool recommends Coca-Cola and McDonald's. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company and International Business Machines and has the following options: long January 2016 $37 calls on Coca-Cola and short January 2016 $37 puts on Coca-Cola. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.