Why the Markets May Be Over-Emphasizing GE's Coming Earnings Impact

General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) used to be one of the most important companies in the world. By some arguments the conglomerate still is extremely important. After all, having $120 billion in annual revenues and close to 300,000 employees has to count for something. And of course GE still matters to its existing shareholders. The problem is that General Electric just doesn’t matter the stock market at this time.

General Electric is set to report earnings this week and a lot of attention is being given to the company. Perhaps the real attention should not be expected until November.

GE has just seen Jeff Immelt retire ahead of when many of us were expecting, and it is after years of many underlying efforts and subsidiaries underperforming. Now John Flannery is in charge of GE as CEO, and he has been systematically putting in his choice of people to lead the divisions over some of Immelt’s people — something that is routine for a monumental change but it doesn’t feel routine in the process.

What should be assumed is that existing investors should not expect great earnings out of GE. In fact, they should be expecting a serious taming of expectations. After all, Flannery now has all rights to do whatever he sees fit. Investors may even have to have an interpretation period in light of the company’s weak response after an analyst recently suggested GE’s dividend could even be at risk of being lowered.

GE is the worst performing Dow stock so far in 2017, and by a large margin. Its shares are down about 27% year to date, and they are down 20% from this time a year ago.

GE has also completed its Baker Hughes transaction in recent months, and analysts on Wall Street often fail to integrate new revenue streams for multiple quarters after a large transaction. The notion that Baker Hughes is still an independently traded entity but is called “a GE Company” may only further complicate how well analysts cover GE in the coming quarters.

When GE reports its third-quarter earnings on Friday, October 20, analysts are currently looking for $0.49 in earnings per share (EPS) and $32.59 billion in revenue. Shares closed out last week at $22.98 and were trading around $23.30 mid-Monday, with a consensus price target of $28.00 and a 52-week trading range of $22.83 to $32.38.

What investors should understand is that GE’s longer term guidance may not really be clarified until a November presentation. Flannery needed time to build his focus and to get his own team in place. The latter issue is still unfolding with a new management announcement just on Monday morning.

Analysts on Wall Street have been ratcheting down expectations for 2018 and beyond. No analysts currently expect anywhere close to Immelt’s old target of $2.00 in earnings per share for 2018 — and that estimate is currently down to $1.53 for 2017 and $1.63 for 2017, with more room to fall.

Those same Wall Street analysts have been talking down their price targets, and that is even true among the analysts who still have Buy and Outperform ratings. The consensus of $28.00 per share ahead of earnings was a $29.08 consensus one month ago, and it was a consensus of $31.58 right before its earnings back in July.

It appears that Flannery is taking the “there are no sacred cows” approach to how he will evaluate GE’s units ahead. The case for a GE break-up or spin-off might even come up more than a few times while Flannery continues to enforce his vision while the influence of Immelt continues to revert to history. GE has been able to fend off the threat of a breakup for years, but its move deeper into energy (oil and gas) and less into finance (GE Capital) were prior to Flannery’s role as chief executive. He may very well have zero reasons to feel obligated to maintaining very much, or any, of Immelt’s vision of the past 16 years.

GE is still more or less the 20th largest weighting in the S&P 500, but its price of only $23.30 makes it the lowest weighting in the price-weighted (rather than market cap-weight) of the Dow by far. The site shows that GE’s overall weighting in the Dow is now just down to 0.69%, despite having the 11th highest market cap among the 30 Dow stocks.

Investors are going to be paying close attention to GE when it reports, but the reality is that the stock market can move up or down without any correlation against GE now. The bias seems to be for GE to talk softly about earnings right now, and there are so many moving parts that analysts and investors have to trust the company without fully being able to know what today’s balance sheet really entails.

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