Why Investors Remain So Focused on GE Over Other Conglomerates in 2016

May 26, 2016 by Jon C. Ogg

Investors have a mixed history of how they view conglomerates. They are supposed to be preferred companies in times of uncertainty, but that was not the case during the Great Recession. General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) was a winner in 2015, and it was a favored stock for part of 2016. Now it finds its shares having lagged in performance year to date, with a loss of about 3%, when the four other major conglomerates are all higher.

24/7 Wall St. has looked through myriad charts, analyst reports, consensus estimates pages and the like to find out what it is that is driving the interest in GE over peers. Despite some of the concerns here, there is one simple explanation after backing out all the complicated issues — earnings growth!

GE’s earnings per share (EPS) of $1.31 in 2015 is expected to grow to $1.51 in 2016 (15%). Growth is then expected to be 16% to $1.75 EPS in 2017 and then to grow almost 14% to $1.99 in 2018. What really stands out is the expected share buybacks dominating GE — that is expected to fall a sharp 16% from the end of 2015 to the end of 2018. Another driving force here is of course dividend yields, with GE still dominating with a 3.1% yield.

24/7 Wall St. then looked through the Thomson First Call estimates for the four largest conglomerates. We also have focused on charts, market capitalization, relative valuations and other considerations. The focus today may be on GE, but there are no assurances at all that this will be the case ahead.

3M Co. (NYSE: MMM) is expected to see EPS rise as follows: 8.9% to $8.26 in 2016, 8.3% to $8.94 in 2017 and 8.2% to $9.68 in 2018. 3M is expected to see its shares outstanding to contract by about 7.5% from 2015 to 2018. 3M’s yield is 2.6%, but its shares are up over 13% so far in 2016.

United Technologies Corp. (NYSE: UTX) is expected to see EPS rise by 4.3% to $6.56 in 2016, followed by earnings growth of 6.6% to $6.99 in 2017 and then 8.9% to $7.62 in 2018. UTC’s share float is expected to have shrunk by 11.8% or so from 2015 to 2018. The dividend has a 2.65% yield, and the year-to-date gain in the share price is 5.5%.

Honeywell International Inc. (NYSE: HON) is expected to see earnings rise by 9.2% to $6.66 per share in 2016. That is then expected to be up by 9% to $7.27 in 2017 and then grow another 9.3% in 2018 to $7.94. Honeywell’s share count is not expected to shrink very much at all. Its dividend has a 2.1% yield, and the stock is up over 11% so far this year.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (NYSE: BRK-A) is too thinly followed by analysts to have reliable earnings estimates. Warren Buffett does not pay a dividend, nor will he in his lifetime, unless he lives another 15 or 20 years. Berkshire Hathaway has share buyback authorization, but the company rarely hits that buyback threshold. Still, the shares were last seen up 9% so far in 2016.

There are some serious issues that investors need to remember here. First is that the earnings are largely being driven at GE by share buybacks. Double-digit EPS growth is due to a rapid acquisition of GE’s own stock. GE’s net income growth is in a state of flux as it moves to an industrial conglomerate and shrinks its banking and finance activities down to under 25% of its profits ahead.

One issue that may also be an ongoing issue here is whether GE can really live up to its 2018 plan of close to $2.00 EPS. A lot has to go right, and it remains to be seen if GE’s oil and gas operations will act as too much of a drag.

Recently JPMorgan put a dark cloud over GE. On May 12, it gave the equivalent of a Sell rating with an implied 11% downside. Its biggest concern in this Underweight initiation was that GE’s earnings goal to 2018 looks ambitious in light of such weak oil and gas numbers. The firm still acknowledged a massive backlog and an ongoing transformation away from being a financial stock. That call took GE shares back under $30, until the latest recovery in a big, two-day rally.

There may also be a merger premium that drove UTC and Honeywell into talks. Honeywell’s offer, which was unusual for the smaller company to pursue the larger, was deemed inadequate. Still, that means that weakness in any one of the two might lead the other to revisit a merger at some point — and there potentially could be a less strict merger climate after the presidential election in 2016.

GE investors have had a lot to cheer. The company has fully recovered from the post-recession woes and it is no longer considered a conglomerate dominated by a bank. It has closed the Alstom and GE appliance deals, it has many recently closed financial deals, as well as pending deals. Its unlocking of Synchrony Financial has been completed, and GE no longer has its media exposure.

All the conglomerates might seem to have high valuations now against blended earnings expectations for 2016 and 2017, until you compare it to the broader market. Those forward blended price-to-earnings (P/E) ratios currently are as follows: GE 18.5, 3M 19.8, UTC 14.8 and Honeywell 16.5. From a relative valuation perspective, the S&P 500 is now trading at 17.7 times its forward 12-month P/E ratio, a premium of more than one point to its 15-year average.

Additional closing data and share price performance versus analyst expectations for 3M, UTC and Honeywell are shown below. The performance expected ahead for a consensus one-year price target does not take the dividend yields into consideration.

GE shares were recently trading at $30.08. The stock has a consensus analyst price target of $32.79, which implies upside of 9% from the current price level. GE has a 52-week trading range of $19.37 to $32.05, and shares are down 6.5% from the high.

Shares of 3M last traded at $169.97, with a consensus price target of $171.60, implying upside of 9.6%. The stock has a 52-week range of $134.00 to $171.27, but shares are 7.6% below the high.

UTC was trading at $100.31, within a 52-week range of $83.39 to $119.12. Shares are down 18.7% from the high. The consensus price target is $111.67 and implies an upside of 11.3%.

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Honeywell shares last traded at $114.73. The consensus price target is $124.84, implying upside of 8.8% from the current price level. The 52-week range is $87.00 to $116.56, and shares are only down 1.6% from the high.

As far as a relative valuation, GE’s market cap is over $276 billion. Berkshire Hathaway’s market cap is $356 billion, but its split structure makes it more confusing for investors – ditto for its $216,185 A-shares price.

3M has a market cap of $103 billion. UTC’s market cap is $84 billion, and Honeywell has a market cap of $87 billion. That means that the three companies have a combined market cap of $274 billion, almost identical to that of GE alone.

There are many moving parts here, and these numbers can change handily through time. Right now, the conglomerate interest still seems to focus handily around GE and its ongoing changes. If those 2018 targets become too back-end loaded, or if the market as a whole starts to feel the target is unattainable, there could be a big changing of the guard.