Why JPMorgan Says General Electric Earnings and Dividend May Be at Risk

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It has been one of the most dramatic falls from grace on Wall Street in a long time. The General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) that Jack Welch steered to greatness with deft management and timely acquisitions has now crumbled to the point that many think it could be removed from the venerable Dow Jones industrial average.

A new JPMorgan research report makes that case that the earnings expectations at the industrial giant are seriously at risk. And if that is indeed the case, then the dividends that many have relied on for decades are also at risk. Citing numerous reasons, not the least of which is reducing pension obligations, the analysts feel that current estimates are, plain and simple, too high. The report noted this:

A little less than a year ago, the reality that the $2 earnings per share target for General Electric was not achievable turned into a narrative based on $1. As expected, the Sell Side Bull case, which had stuck with $2 until the end, now seemingly still rests on $1, supported only because of a management guidance that stands today at the “low end” of $1.00-1.07, despite being a number that is still disconnected from free cash flow guidance for $0.75. The Bull case generously assumes these two will ultimately recouple to the upside, through a combination of internal improvements and cyclical forces. We disagree, and see the ultimate outcome a step lower.

Given the conclusions from the JPMorgan analysts, the current dividend of $0.48, which was already sliced in half back in November for just the second time since the Great Depression, looks to be in serious trouble. Over the years, GE had been one of the biggest dividend payers, and by cutting the dividend in half just four months ago, it was expected to save the company more than $4 billion per year. That made it one of the largest dividend cuts in the history of the S&P 500 and the biggest since 2009.

The JPMorgan team estimate that the company’s free cash flow level looks to be well below the $1 level, and they feel it could very well come in at $0.50, which is just above the current dividend level. If that is indeed the case, then it seems likely it could be cut yet again, or in the most draconian case, eliminated entirely.

With an $11 price target on the shares, and an Underweight rating on the stock, they are clearly one of the more bearish firms on Wall Street, and despite bullish sentiments of others, JPMorgan is sticking with its conclusions, noting this in the report:

To be clear, we are not talking about a Bear case built on simple sound bites such as delayed 10K, price/raw materials impact, another “insurance like” event, a goodwill charge, or even an equity raise or dividend cut. We continue to believe that none of those things have to happen to justify a lower stock price based on the run rate fundamentals.

The bottom line is that while it is probable that the company fights its way out of the current malaise it finds itself in, based on what current data shows, it could be a lot longer process than many currently estimate. Investors looking to grab shares at current levels might fall into a serious value trap, which could mean that capital invested could be dead money for some time.

GE shares have a 52-week trading range of $13.95 to $30.54. They traded at $14.40 apiece Tuesday morning.

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