General Electric (GE) - Get Report shares trade higher Wednesday after CEO Larry Culp told investors he was focused on reducing the conglomerate's debt load and boosting its dividend to a level "in line with our peers" after one of the worst years on record for the iconic industrial giant.
In a letter to shareholders published late Tuesday, Culp vowed that 2019 would be a "year of change" for the group, and pledged to focus on both developing GE's critical power business while reducing debt through asset sales and spin-offs. He also said the company's dividend, which was slashed to just one penny last year amid a series of profit warnings, asset write-downs and broader investor skepticism, allowed GE to retain around $4 billion in cash but would be returned to an industry-competitive level once the balance sheet was stabilized.
"Simply put, we have too much debt and we need to reduce it thoughtfully and soon," Culp said. "Once we put our balance sheet in a healthier place, we'll be in a better position to play offense across all our businesses."
"We intend to maintain a disciplined financial policy, targeting a sustainable credit rating in the single-A range," he added. "This starts with reducing leverage at both our industrial businesses and GE Capital, and we have taken important steps to get there."
GE shares were marked 1.22% higher Wednesday $10.79 each, a move that would take the stock some 62% higher from the decade-low $6.66 it hit on December 11.
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Culp, in only a few months at helm of the struggling group, has raised more than $21 billion through the sale of GE's biopharma unit to his former company, Danaher Corp. (DHR) - Get Report , pledged to shed the group's healthcare division and reduced its stake in Houston-based oil services group Baker Hughes (BHGE) - Get Report .
"Under Culp, GE has been accelerating its strategy to strengthen and deleverage the balance sheet," said Credit Suisse analyst John Walsh. "On Q4, GE highlighted $30 billion of expected cash proceeds from Healthcare, (Baker Hughes), and Wabtec, and (the biopharma sale) is a significant down payment."
"It is unclear if this will trigger upwards revisions from a credit perspective, as it was part of the announced strategy, but faster influx of cash proceeds is a positive," he added.
GE is currently rated BBB+ by Standard & Poor's, three notches above junk status, but it unlikely to be lifted into the single-A range thanks in part to its struggling power business.
General Electric said adjusted non-GAAP earnings for the three months ended in December, its fiscal fourth quarter, came in at 17 cents per share, down around 36% from the same period last year and well shy of the 22 cent Wall Street forecast. Group revenues, GE said, rose 5% to $33.28 billion, firmly ahead of the consensus forecast of $32.6 billion.
GE also said it was able to retain or generate around $10 billion in cash over the quarter thanks to its dividend cut and the sale of parts of its stake Baker Hughes. Cash flow from operations, however, slowed 8.6% from last year to around $6.4 billion.