The 2016 Bullish and Bearish Case for General Electric

Now that 2015 has come to an end, 24/7 Wall St. wants to see what the strategists and analysts on Wall Street are expecting for the stock market in 2016. It turns out the endless bull market was interrupted in 2015 as the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed out the year at 17,425.03 for a drop of 2.2% for the year.

That decline may not be enough reason to call a bear market ahead, but investors know that this comes after six straight years of gains. That -2.2% change in the Dow does not account for individual stock dividends, but General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) was the best conglomerate stock in the Dow in 2015.

GE closed out 2015 at $31.15, for a gain of 27.5%, if you include its dividend adjustments in the total return. For the year ahead, the consensus analyst price target on GE from Thomson Reuters is $31.77. If the analysts are correct, the expected total return for GE would be only about 4.9% if you include its dividend yield of 2.95%. Oddly enough, GE did not make it into the 2016 Dogs of the Dow.

One thing that may matter now is that 2016 has gotten off to a very bumpy start. General Electric’s shares were trading at $30.35 on the third day of trading for this year.

What the bulls have going for themselves is that GE has completed the Synchrony Financial (NYSE: SYF) transaction. GE also continues to sell off financial assets so that it will be evaluated by investors and analysts as an industrial conglomerate rather than as half industrial and half bank.

One big issue is that GE is buying back a massive amount of stock in the year ahead. The proceeds come from the financial asset sales. Ultimately, GE could shrink its float of shares by well over 10%. It could reach a 20% share count shrinkage, if the most aggressive views are achieved.

GE will also continue to rightsize its portfolio of companies and units. Ultimately, that means more bolt-on acquisitions rather than game-changing massive acquisitions. The independent research firm raised GE’s price target to $36 at the end of 2015, and now it has the Export-Import Bank again.

There are of course some cautionary views for GE ahead. The strong dollar is a continual pressure on any U.S. industrial company that wants to export goods. GE also has been unable to shed its GE Appliances unit, a sale that was somewhat surprisingly blocked by U.S. regulators.

Another issue is that the best performing Dow stocks of each category often do not live up the best bets the following year. It seems silly, but it can happen. GE is valued at close to 20 times forward earnings now. This is not cheap, but much depends on that core GE ahead. As the float shrinks via buybacks, the earnings per share may be expected to ratchet higher.

Another consideration is that many of GE’s catalysts that propelled shares higher in 2015 have now played out — even that never-ending Alstom acquisition, for the most part. Those play-out issues are why Credit Suisse removed GE from its core Focus list late in 2015. GE also has lots of exposure in the world’s growth markets, where growth has been slowing and slowing.

Another issue that some investors may have is that GE is currently not raising its dividend, but the billions and billions in share buybacks will be favored ahead.

This will be an interesting year. The consensus analyst price target starting off the year seems very unimpressive. Still, analysts were very far behind the curve on GE’s price target at the start of 2015 and throughout the year. In fact, GE outperformed its bull and bear scenario for 2015 by far.

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