It's lonely at the top. Once you've crushed your enemies, seen them driven before you, and heard the lamentation of their shareholders, what more is there to aspire to? In other words, what does the world's biggest (and, many would say, "best") company do to top itself?

Apparently lacking any better ideas, General Electric (NYSE:GE) has decided to do more of the same. In its 2004 earnings report, released on Friday, the corporate producer of everything from refrigerators to derivatives to TV sitcoms described how its overall 2004 earnings increase of just 6% (over 2003) had blossomed into a fourth-quarter increase of 18% and a similar 18% rise in Q4 sales. Finding those numbers satisfactory, GE pledged to continue increasing earnings at a double-digit clip in 2005. Then it dropped the bombshell: The company predicted double-digit earnings for fiscal 2006 as well. That's right, folks, this company is so assured of its dominance of world business that it's offering predictions not just one year out, but two full years into the future. Quite a feat, considering that companies like Coke (NYSE:KO), Gillette (NYSE:G), and The Washington Post (NYSE:WPO) don't try to predict out so much as a single quarter.

It's an ambitious statement, brimming with confidence, but also laden with risk to the company's investors, should GE become priced for a perfection that it ultimately fails to achieve. Even though it's not easy to discern the true dangers that could lie ahead in a conglomerate as vast and complex as GE, let's take a look at two possible risks to shareholder returns.

Risk No. 1 is that old Fool foil, and a stain on the reputation of otherwise admirable companies like IBM (NYSE:IBM) and Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO) -- stock dilution. It doesn't benefit investors much if their company is profitable but dilution drains those profits away. Every time GE issues stock options to its insiders or acquires a business in a stock-based transaction, it dilutes the corporate profits available to its shareholders. Case in point: In Q4 2004, GE increased its net profits by 18%. That's great, but if GE shareholders had shared fully in that increase, it would have been even better. They didn't. On the contrary, earnings per share increased just 13%, with the balance of the profit diluted away as the share count increased 5.2%.

Risk No. 2: getting paid. Companies facing tough economic times are sometimes tempted to resort to accounting shenanigans to keep sales rising, at the expense of making sure they get paid in a timely manner -- with Lucent (NYSE:LU) circa 2000 being the poster boy for this problem. When receivables begin to mount faster than sales do, it's a sign that something is amiss. And that appears to be happening at GE. Over the past year, GE's sales rose 14%. But over the same time period, receivables increased 32.7%, more than twice as fast.

Does either of these risks represent a disaster in the making? For GE investors' sakes, let's hope not. But both bear watching, as GE strives to fulfill its ambitious two-year plan.

One column can never do justice to a company the size of GE. Read more about it in:

Fool contributor Rich Smith holds no position in any company mentioned in this article.