Why Analysts Are So Negative About General Electric Ahead of Earnings

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Shares of General Electric Company (NYSE: GE) have been mired in controversy for years. General Electric has been reshaping its portfolio into more industrial and energy, while shedding consumer finance, its NBC Universal ownership, and appliances. GE was the worst performer of the major conglomerates during the great recession, and its stock has been a laggard over the last 10-year and 15-year comparisons to most other conglomerates, industrial companies and when compared to the Dow Jones Industrial Average itself.

General Electric is set to report earnings on Friday in the early hours of the morning. 24/7 Wall St. has tracked GE for some time, and it has been impossible to ignore a rather large taming of expectations going into the report. Certain analysts on Wall Street have aggressively been cutting their target prices and/or expectations for GE in recent weeks.

The consensus analyst estimates from Thomson Reuters were last seen calling for $0.25 in earnings per share and $29.01 billion in revenue. Thomson Reuters shows that as a comparison against $0.51 EPS in the same quarter of 2016. What really matters to investors is whether, with a new CEO coming on board, GE will move to lower its longer-term 2018 earnings projection. Wall Street is now at $1.62 EPS for 2017 and $1.81 EPS for 2018, and GE had previously been trying to target $2.00 per share in 2018, before talking it unofficially lower.

At the end of the day, there are two potential views on GE ahead of the report and the arrival of a new CEO: Wall Street is lowering the bar so that the analysts can claim the situation is not all that bad; or that things are about to get even worse than the more cautious investors and analysts are bracing for.

The big downgrade was a call from J.P. Morgan on July 6, 2017. GE’s rating was a rather dismal Underweight, effectively a Sell rating. What really stood out here was that GE’s price target in that call was slashed to $22 from $27. JPMorgan sees a major reset coming to 2018 earnings, and for a long haul the firm is now expecting a material restructuring that would be dilutive for several years. The firm now believes that almost everything is on the table for the new CEO to change: earnings and cash flow outlook; a likely restructuring; future capital allocations; and even GE’s portfolio priorities.

Two more recent analyst calls have been made, both of which may have a more negative bias on General Electric as well. Cowen & Company lowered its price target to $27 from $30, and Morgan Stanley resumed coverage with an Equal Weight rating and a $27 price target.

Merrill Lynch downgraded GE shares to Neutral from Buy, back in late April. The firm still has a $31 price objective and, as of mid-July, Merrill Lynch’s estimates were still under the consensus for earnings and revenue.

As a whole, the consensus analyst target has been coming lower and lower of late. In mid-April the consensus analyst target from Thomson Reuters was $33.00. Then it was $32.30 in mid-May, $32.15 in mid-June and finally down to $31.00 on last look after the most recent analyst price target cuts were factored in.

There may be a rather large wild card in GE’s earnings report from Baker Hughes, Inc. (NYSE: BHGE). The companies completed their merger and Baker Hughes is now considered a GE company. Analysts on Wall Street are often awful at adding in or subtracting out future revenue and earnings models when such large changes need to be factored in. Interestingly enough, despite the extreme J.P. Morgan caution on GE earlier this month, J.P. Morgan resumed Baker Hughes with an Overweight rating and assigned  a $60 price target.

Make no mistake, however, about the importance of  GE. In some ways the company is its own economic indicator. GE is among the largest employers in America, with about 295,000 worldwide employees, and 104,000 of those in the United States. In the 2016 annual report, GE forecast that its operating pension cost would be approximately $1.4 billion in 2017, but the direct GE Pension Plan funding was at a $19.1 billion deficit, and that is before almost doubling ($17.7 billion) the other three units from the funding status portion of its annual report.

General Electric has been very hard for analysts and investors alike to nail down over the years. It is more focused on its industrial efforts than it has been in about three decades, but it still has so many moving that parts it’s hard to get everything working well at the same time. GE’s seven separate businesses in the industrial segment are power, oil and gas, renewable energy, lighting, aviation, healthcare, and transportation.

GE shares were last seen trading up a mere penny at $26.79 in Monday’s mid-day trading session. That is versus a 52-week range of $25.85 to $33.00.

While picking the real direction is hard, investors should expect that more analysts are going to throw in the towel on GE, or that analysts who have been so bearish are going to have to telegraph that maybe they have focused predominantly on the negatives.