General Electric (NYSE:GE) is a company with lots of moving parts. The manufacturing giant operates seven different industrial segments, and is in the process of divesting the majority of its non-industrial-related financial assets from GE Capital.
With effectively eight major areas for investors to keep tabs on, General Electric's earnings conference call has proven to be a great resource for investors to gain additional insight about the underlying health of the company's various businesses. During GE's most recent first-quarter earnings call, management touched on five areas that investors should focus on.
1. Bucking the trend in oil and gas
Despite the challenges that many oil and gas companies have been experiencing thanks to declining oil prices, General Electric's highly diversified oil and gas business seemed to minimize the damage it suffered in the first quarter.
On an organic basis, after adjusting for currency fluctuations, General Electric's oil and gas segment's revenue growth was unchanged year over year, and margins improved by 50 basis points.
Early on during the earnings call, CEO Jeff Immelt summed up the company's oil and gas performance:
Oil and gas had a solid first quarter. Organically, they were positive in orders with revenue flat. Profit was up 11% [year over year] organically [after currency effects]. The oil and gas market remains volatile with some segments under pressure. However, our diversified oil and gas platforms delivered in the first quarter. We are on track for our targets in 2015.
The main segments under pressure included service orders, turbo machinery, and equipment orders, which declined by 27%, 23%, and 10%, respectively. The target that Immelt is referring to is General Electric's goal of earning between $1.10 and $1.20 per share in industrial operating earnings this year.
2. Total domination
General Electric's upcoming LEAP jet engine, which was developed at CFM International, a 50-50 joint venture between GE and Snecma, is expected to enter service in 2017. It has already become the fastest-selling engine in aviation history, and one of GE's most successful product launches ever.
Compared to its predecessor, the LEAP engine will be 15% more fuel efficient and is expected to save airlines nearly $3 million per airplane in running costs. These economics are clearly driving LEAP's massive win rate in next-generation single-aisle aircrafts.
On the conference call, Immelt didn't fail to mention this achievement:
We saw some encouraging signs in the quarter. Aviation remains very strong, recording $800 million on LEAP orders. The LEAP has won 79% of all Neo and MAX orders. LEAP engines for Neo and C919 are flying and the LEAP for [MAX] is in the test plane and flying soon. The engine is ahead of schedule. The LEAP engine has been one of our most successful product launches in history.
3. Margins are running ahead of plan
On the industrial side of the business, GE's first-quarter margins ran ahead of the company's 2015 target. This was the result of favorable mix, well-managed costs, and improved productivity across the organization.
During the conference call, Immelt delved into specifics:
[Operating] margins continue to be a good story with growth of a 120 basis points. We have targeted 50 basis points of gross margin expansion for the year and we hit 90 basis points in the first quarter.
4. Industrial cash flow
Considering General Electric has plans to generate 90% of its operating earnings from industrial activities by the end of 2018, it's essential to monitor changes in the total segment's cash flow. Over the long term, consistent cash flow growth will allow management a certain degree of confidence that it can raise its dividend in future periods without dipping into the capital needs of its industrial operations.
Although GE's industrial cash flow declined by 29% year over year to $890 million, Immelt expects it'll improve "substantially" in the second quarter:
Industrial cash flow was lighter than our expectations driven by the timing on progress collections, particularly in power and water and the impact of an aviation supply chain issue on inventory. These timing issues will reverse in the second and third quarter and our expectation is that the industrial cash flow will be stronger in 2Q and will be up substantially for the first half versus last year.
5. Market conditions are ripe for GE Capital exit plan
Between low interest rates and high stock prices, management believes that its plan to divest the majority of GE Capital's non-industrial financial assets is well-timed with the market environment. Consequently, GE's initial plan to divest these assets by the end of 2016 could be ahead of schedule.
However, when balancing speed with price, there's a lot to consider, according to CFO Jeff Bornstein:
I think that, when we think about the risk associated with this including price and value, speed is the single biggest mitigate[r]. We have a market today that's incredibly receptive to these kinds of assets. And so, we need to be able to capitalize on that. There is -- no question, we've got a balance from an execution standpoint, the nature of the buyer and the size of the transaction to the extent that we are relying on, maybe a back-end regulatory approval by the buyer, we are doing smaller transactions that maybe, maybe not, may be better from a price perspective than doing several large big bulk deals.
Putting it all together
In the first quarter, six of GE's seven industrial segments reported organic revenue growth, suggesting underlying strength in GE's industrial business. All things considered, it appears that General Electric continues to work toward its greater goal of becoming a highly focused -- and diversified -- industrial powerhouse.
Steve Heller has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. 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.