General Electric (NYSE:GE) has been an interesting company to follow over the past few decades. It has a massive business as a manufacturer and supplier of products to the energy, aerospace, and healthcare industries, among others. It's also had a large financial segment that has actually driven most of its growth.
But relying on financial services is risky, and that became apparent during the financial crisis. The company has been transformed as a result. Here are three things you probably didn't know about today's GE.
Dan Caplinger: Many people remember just how badly General Electric suffered during the financial crisis, surprising those who believed that the company still got the bulk of its revenue and profits from its core industrial business. Now, though, General Electric has done an about-face, and it's those who remember GE for its financial segment who haven't realized the changes that have been afoot at the company.
In particular, General Electric has accelerated its plans to reduce its exposure to the financial business dramatically, with a massive sale of assets expected to result in the return of more than $90 billion in capital to shareholders over the next three years. The company already spun off its Synchrony Financial retail finance business last year, and General Electric has also lined up buyers for much of its real estate asset portfolio and a considerable amount of its performing-loan portfolio.
GE isn't getting out of finance entirely, but it expects that what's left will help support its aerospace, energy, and healthcare businesses by helping prospective customers get needed capital to make purchases. Overall, GE now sees finance as a means to further its industrial business prospects rather than an end in itself, and that's good news for risk-averse shareholders.
Rich Smith: From an investor's point of view, I'd also add that reducing GE's "exposure to the financial business" will make GE stock easier to analyze.
Historically, GE has been a kind of a hybrid beast -- half industrial company, half bank. Unfortunately, while one of the best metrics for determining the profitability of an industrial company is to examine its free cash flow (FCF) and compare it to enterprise value (EV), this formula is one of the worst ways to try to value a bank. (To cite just two problems, banks are in the business of sending money out into the market to earn interest, rather than collecting cash. Also, even healthy banks often sport negative enterprise values because they borrow large amounts of money to put it to work as loans.)
As you can imagine, this inherent contradiction made valuing a GE that got one-third of its revenues and half its profits from GE Capital somewhat problematic. But that's about to change.
With most of its financial businesses soon to be sold off or spun off, GE will be 90% an industrial company by 2018. At that point, investors will be able to examine the company's industrial free cash flow ($12.2 billion last year), compare it to an enterprise value uncomplicated by a bank's big balance sheet, and calculate a pretty accurate EV-to-FCF ratio on the stock.
Granted, that valuation may not look attractive. A hypothetically debt-free GE, valued entirely on today's $264 billion market cap, for example, would have a pretty expensive EV/FCF ratio of 21.6. But it's just as possible that the GE of the future will cost less, or generate more free cash flow, and sport a more attractive valuation.
Either way, with GE freed from the obscuring factor of GE Capital, investors will have a much easier time at figuring out which is which.
Travis Hoium: Now that GE is reducing its focus on the financial business, it's putting energy and money back into its bread-and-butter business: energy.
GE essentially invented the grid as we know it, and as we evolve to using more energy on demand and storing energy for future use, it will play a big role in making that shift. GE Energy Storage is a business you may not have heard of -- after all, Elon Musk's energy storage ambitions are drowning everyone else out -- but this isn't a market to overlook, and it could play a major role in the company's future.
Let's start with the fact that GE is already in (likely) every utility in the country, is one of the largest wind turbine suppliers in the world, and it provides infrastructure for commercial, industrial, and residential locations just to scratch the surface of its reach. So, GE has a head start over other energy storage suppliers that are starting from scratch in the business.
GE already has over 50 MWh of energy storage in the field, which nearly matches the 62 MWh of energy storage installed in the U.S. last year, according to GTM Research. So, it's one of the biggest players in the small but growing energy storage industry. And GE is also testing new technologies like flow batteries in a partnership with Berkeley Lab that some think could be more effective long-term than lithium ion batteries.
You may not have even known that GE was a company to watch in the energy storage business, but it's already one of the biggest in the industry, and given its structural advantages, it could be an industry leader. At the very least, energy storage is a business to watch for future growth at GE.
Transforming an industrial giant
In the past few years, GE has changed more than most investors realize. Maybe you didn't know it was so reliant on the financial business before the financial crisis, or maybe you didn't know that it's returning to its roots as an industrial powerhouse as we speak. But if you haven't taken a fresh look at the new GE recently, it may be time to consider this transformed company -- because it isn't what it used to be.
Dan Caplinger and Rich Smith have no position in any stocks mentioned. Travis Hoium owns shares of General Electric Company. 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.