The regulators giveth, and the regulators taketh away. For a company like General Electric (NYSE: GE) that has relied on acquisitions for a significant portion of its growth -- and on asset sales to return cash to shareholders -- regulators can have an outsized influence.
In recent days, U.S. and European regulators have made some big decisions affecting the company. But the biggest decision is the one they haven't made yet. Here's what you need to know as an investor:
GE's proposed sale of its Appliances unit to Swedish company Electrolux was scrapped because of objections from the U.S. Department of Justice, which regulates these types of transactions. Afterward, there was concern that the company wouldn't be able to find a buyer. But find one it did, in the form of Chinese appliance maker Haier. This company has a very small share of the U.S. market, concentrated almost exclusively in refrigerators. The purchase of GE's appliance brands such as GE Monogram is an excellent way for the company to increase its North American market share.
GE reported on March 3 that the deal had received approval from U.S. regulators. The announcement came less than two months after the proposed sale was announced. That's in stark contrast to the proposed Electrolux merger, which languished for more than a year before GE pulled the plug.
A speedy resolution is good for shareholders, as it puts GE one step closer to being able to deploy the $5.4 billion purchase price. It also advances the company's effort to rid itself of a low-margin non-core asset.
But it's not all good news for GE from the regulators. The Justice Department and the European Union have been holding up the merger of oilfield services providers Halliburton (NYSE: HAL) and Baker Hughes (NYSE: BHI) for more than a year over antitrust concerns.
EU regulators have announced a July 11 deadline to make a decision. If the deal falls through, Halliburton will owe Baker Hughes a $3.5 billion cash breakup fee, which it will have to take on debt to finance. For now, all it can do is wait.
This situation negatively affects General Electric. GE CEO Jeff Immelt wants to make additional investments in the company's oil and gas division. He's interested in buying Halliburton's drilling unit, one of the businesses the company is putting up for sale to try to satisfy the regulators. Of course, if the Halliburton-Baker Hughes deal falls through, Immelt will be out of luck.
There's another factor in play here, too. Oil prices seem to be stabilizing in recent weeks, leading to optimism that prices may rise in the near future. And if energy prices go up, oil and gas services businesses -- such as the drilling unit Immelt hopes to buy -- will start to see their fortunes improve. That in itself would be good for GE, which already has significant oil and gas exposure.
The downside is that the longer regulators hold off on approving the Halliburton-Baker Hughes deal, the better their units will start performing. The better they perform, the more bidders will be interested and the higher the price Halliburton can command for them. It's in GE's best interests to buy the businesses now on the cheap, while the industry is still ailing. But every day the merger is delayed increases the likelihood of a recovery.
The Foolish bottom line
Overall, a recovery in the oil sector would be great news for GE, whose oil and gas unit has seen declining revenues over the past several quarters. However, it would be in the company's interests to buy oil and gas assets from Halliburton before such a recovery begins. Unlike many potential buyers, GE has the luxury of being large enough -- and, with its asset sales, flush with enough cash -- to make such purchases while the market is weak and hold them until a recovery, whenever that might be.
Ultimately, uncertainty -- about the regulators and the oil and gas market -- wins the day. Wise investors will wait to buy Halliburton or Baker Hughes until a clearer picture emerges.
For GE, the Haier deal approval is a big relief, and the Halliburton deal delays are a big pain. Ultimately, though, the company's fortunes rest more on its ability to divest its remaining GE Capital holdings and grow its core industrial businesses than on the success or failure of individual acquisitions or sales. These two developments don't really affect the overall thesis for the company.