Why Short Interest in General Electric Is Falling

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For five consecutive months General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) has been the worst performing stock among the 30 equities included in the Dow Jones Industrial Average index. And the gap between GE and the next worst-performing stock is widening and, barring some major shift, the industrial giant will easily finish at the bottom of the Dow ranking for the year.

Short interest in GE hit a peak of 125.75 million shares (about 1.44% of the total float) at the end of September and dropped to 119.55 million in mid-October and to 101.48 million at the end of October. For the year to date, the Dow is up about 18.7% and GE is down about 36.7%.

Shares had been trending downward, with the slope steepening in about mid-June. Then in mid-October, the downward trend fell off a cliff as the shares appeared to post a new 52-week low every day. In fact, the stock did set a new low every day for nine-consecutive trading sessions and only broke the string last Friday.

What was so special about last Friday? The stock had pierced the $20 price level and many traders couldn’t pass up the opportunity to buy the stock at a multiyear low price. Over the past week, however, that $20 price has seemed more like a ceiling than a floor. The stock closed at $19.99 on Thursday and traded up a penny in Friday’s premarket.

CEO John Flannery is scheduled to present his strategic vision for the company on Monday at an investor update event. It’s hard to imagine what he could say that would put some air under the share price, but there is one thing he could say that would let nearly all the air out.

That’s a dividend cut, something the company has avoided since 2009. The $0.96 per share annual dividend represents a yield of 4.5% and many analysts don’t think that level is sustainable.

So far Flannery has nibbled at the edges of GE’s troubles, but selling off assets, closing poor performing business and laying off thousands of employees appears to be just around the corner as the company tries to regain its footing. And while a dividend cut would surely send the stock lower, it would also signal a determination on Flannery’s part to do the tough thing. That is to say, once the dividend cut is absorbed, the bleeding may stop and the patient may recover.