Why GE's Earnings Report Could be a Sideshow to Longer-Term Expectations and Internal Issues

General Electric Company (NYSE: GE) finds itself at a serious crossroad in July. While many eyes are going  to be on GE’s earnings and guidance, there are many moving parts inside the operations and corporate governance that are all churning at the same exact time. Friday’s earnings report could be the last of its sort as Jeff Immelt is stepping down as chief executive officer of GE.

General Electric has been reshaping its portfolio into more industrial and energy, while shedding consumer finance, its NBC Universal ownership, and its appliances. GE was the worst performer of the major conglomerates during the last 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 with the Dow Jones Industrial Average itself.

General Electric is set to report earnings early Friday. It has been nearly 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 25 cents in earnings per share (EPS) and $29.01 billion in revenue. Thomson Reuters shows that as a comparison against 51 cents EPS in the same quarter of 2016.

Perhaps what really matters now is not whether, but how much, GE is willing 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 a share in 2018 prior to the company unofficially talking down that forecast. For some relevance now, Thomson Reuters does not even have the consensus earnings coming to $2 per share by 2019.

There are two potential views on GE ahead of the actual earnings report and the arrival of a new CEO. One view is that Wall Street has lowered the bar so that the analysts can claim the situation is not that bad. A second view is things could get even worse than the more cautious investors and analysts have started to brace for.

If one analyst call hammered GE, it was a J.P. Morgan downgrade on July 6. GE’s rating was at Underweight, effectively a Sell rating by most firms’ rating systems. GE’s price target in that call was slashed to $22 from $27. J.P. Morgan sees a major reset coming to 2018 earnings. And outside of earnings, the expectation in that call is calling for a material restructuring that would be dilutive (to earnings) for several years. J.P. Morgan’s team believes that almost everything is on the table for incoming Chief Executive Officer John Flannery 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.

It was back in April that Merrill Lynch threw in the towel and downgraded GE shares to Neutral from Buy, but it still had a $31 price objective despite Merrill Lynch’s estimates still being lower than the consensus for earnings and revenue.

Thomson Reuters showed that the consensus analyst price target has been coming lower and lower in recent weeks and months. In mid-April the consensus analyst target from Thomson Reuters was $33 when it was $32.30 in mid-May, $32.15 in mid-June and finally down to $3 on last look after the most recent analyst price target cuts were factored in.

One huge wild card in GE’s earnings report could come from Baker Hughes, Inc. (NYSE: BHGE). The companies completed their merger in recent weeks and Baker Hughes is now considered (and formally called) a GE company. If one thing is true about analysts on Wall Street, it is they can be atrocious when it comes to adding in or subtracting out future revenue and earnings models when such large corporate changes come from acquisitions or divestitures. On a side note, despite the extreme J.P. Morgan caution on GE earlier this month, J.P. Morgan resumed Baker Hughes coverage with an Overweight rating and assigned a $60 price target in recent days.

Investors often overlook GE’s importance now because it is has the lowest weighting in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. In some ways, GE can still be considered its own economic indicator. GE has about 295,000 worldwide employees, and 104,000 are in the United States. One issue that could be brought up for a new CEO is how GE will deal with its underfunded pension.

General Electric has been very hard for analysts and investors alike to nail down over the years. The conglomerate is more focused on its industrial efforts than it has been for close to three decades. Still, GE 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. A visit to GE’s press releases will show how many moving parts there really are inside of each of its units.

John Flannery is the GE insider taking over Immelt’s position as CEO and Chairman. He is a long-term company man and 55 years old. His background has been in GE health care and in GE’s capital units, and he has been overseas during much of his tenure. According to the Immelt-exit release, GE’s latest backlog was $320 billion. If everything is going on the table, including GE’s portfolio of companies, will investors fear that GE could resume a path of larger acquisitions and potentially have many further divesting efforts? If so, this is only going to make it harder for analysts and investors to value GE ahead.

GE shares were last seen trading down 0.7% at $26.74 on Thursday. GE’s 52-week trading range is $25.85 to $33.

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