Are Short Sellers Betting General Electric Will Kill Its Dividend?

Print Email

Short interest in General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) rose by nearly 14% in the reporting period that ended March 15. Short sellers added almost 19 million shares to their positions, and a total of 155.34 million shares (1.8% of the total float) were short.

During the period, GE shares dropped 2.7%, but from mid-February through Monday shares are down about 4.5%. On four of five trading days last week, GE stock posted new 52-week lows, and it posted another on Monday at $12.73, a level the stock hasn’t seen since the Great Recession.

Based on last night’s closing price the stock’s dividend yield is 3.41%, pretty rich for a stock that’s trading down about 57% over the past 12 months and down around 26% for the year to date.

For all the bad news about GE, a fair number of investors are treating the falling share prices as an opportunity to add more of the company’s stock, following Warren Buffett’s advice to buy when there’s blood in the streets.

That was advice that Buffett himself did not take. He dumped all his GE stock (10.6 million shares) last August, but retained a stake in Synchrony Financial (NYSE: SYF), the company formed when GE spun-off its GE Capital business. Buffett said in January that he’d buy GE “at the right number.” Apparently, the 28% share-price drop since mid-January doesn’t qualify as the “right number.”

The mixed reaction to the stock likely revolves around GE’s dividend. Investors who believe that GE will continue to pay a dividend will hold or buy the stock until the company gives them an inarguable reason to stop.

It won’t take much for GE to push out the door those investors who are less certain about the dividend.

The most intriguing possibility that has been floated is that Buffett buys GE. He’s sitting on a pile of cash that totals around $116 billion, enough to pay cash for GE at the industrial giant’s current price level.

Buffett also has said he wants to put that cash to work more productively, and that’s probably what’s holding him back from making an offer for GE. Even with very low earnings on cash and short-term Treasuries, at least there is some money coming in. GE’s prospects indicate that money is only going to continue flowing out.

GE stock closed down about 1.4% Monday at $12.89 and opened near that number Tuesday. The 52-week trading range is $12.73 to $30.54. The 12-month consensus price target on the stock is an optimistic $17.96.

I'm interested in the Newsletter