General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) is the brunt of yet more market chatter that CEO and Chairman Jeff Immelt could step down as chief executive officer next year. This would be considered an early departure by about four or five years, if it were to come about, but 24/7 Wall St. would like to remind readers that this is not the first such call that Immelt may leave his post early. It also may not offer any real solution for GE investors.
News made the rounds on Monday and Tuesday about a view from Scott Davis, an analyst at Barclays, who has suggested that CFO Jeff Bornstein could be ready to succeed Immelt as CEO. Both Dow Jones and Bloomberg fielded comments, but what investors need to consider here is how much of a paradigm change this would be — and again, this is not the first time we have heard the Immelt departure overture from the financial media.
What Davis focused on is that investors are ready for a change. Here is what is becoming more irony than you can even make up: the prior potential replacement considered by some investors in 2014 and 2013 was Lorenzo Simonelli, who is head of GE Oil & Gas, and he previously ran GE Transportation.
How ironic is it that GE would have its golden boy the head of GE’s oil and gas outfit? The company now may be exposed to oil as much as 25%. Let’s just say that the drop in oil prices did not exactly help General Electric.
The Barclays note mentioned that Immelt, after being at the helm for 13 and a half years, is now seen as having a greater sense of urgency, that he knows he does not have much time to repair his legacy. There is also an admission that Immelt has not shown any indication that he was ready to retire.
Another point raised is the real underlying issue — that GE shares are down 35% under Immelt. What often gets overlooked here is that Immelt stepped in after a long tenure under the notorious Jack Welch. These were not only big shoes to fill. Immelt took over literally days ahead of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, which put the already weak U.S. economy into an immediate recession. Another consideration was that GE had traded at nearly 30 times earnings at the peak under Jack Welch, yet GE’s modern day earnings multiple is closer to 15.
Many of the calls for Immelt to leave are stock based. The company went deeper into finance under Immelt, which made things worse in the recession. Immelt also took GE deeper into energy — alternative and cleantech (or cleaner tech) under the Ecomagination and into oil and gas. These were praised at the time, but the current climate makes them now “bad decisions.”
Now GE, under Immelt, has trimmed its financial exposure with the formal initial public offering of Synchrony Financial (NYSE: SYF). The goal has been clear, to become an industrial conglomerate rather than a company that is half and half of a bank and a conglomerate. GE has exited the NBCUniversal ownership, which was criticized as not having any synergies. Now GE is in the process of still trying to acquire Alstom in France, while it has struck a deal to sell GE Appliances to Electrolux.
Is another call for the end of, or in this case predicting the end of, Immelt’s tenure as CEO the right call? That quite depends on whom you ask. It has been a debate internally here at 24/7 Wall St. and at many other shops in the financial media and inside investing firms for years.
GE’s revenue in the year 2000, the last year under Jack Welch, was $129.8 billion. Net earnings that year were $12.735 billion, or $1.27 in earnings per share.
This year, 2015, is the first that may show the new GE, after the divesting and acquisitions have been made. Now go to 2008 before the recession, when GE’s revenues were $183 billion and its earnings were put at $18.1 billion. GE’s revenue was $148.6 billion in 2014, with earnings from continued operations at $15.3 billion.
If a new CEO is going to be considered by investors as a massive driving force at GE, he or she will have to magically make GE investors pay much more than just 15 times or 20 times earnings to finally escape that revered shadow of Jack Welch.