General Electric Surges After UBS Boosts Rating, Price Target, Citing Improved Culp Turnaround

GE's improving fortunes under CEO Larry Culp have driven the stock more than 50% higher this year, and UBS analyst Markus Mittermaier thinks there are more gains to come.
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General Electric (GE) - Get Report shares jumped higher Thursday, extending their year-to-date gain past 50%, after analysts at UBS predicted a 2020 'inflection point' for the company and its  ongoing turnaround under CEO Larry Culp.

UBS analyst Markus Mittermaier boosted his price target on GE stock to $14 a share, one of the highest on Wall Street and a $1.50 increase from his previous estimate. He also lifted his rating on the shares to "buy" from "hold", citing improvements to the sprawling industrial group's balance sheet that will lead to stronger cash flows in the coming year and change analyst and investor perception "significant cash drag to successful transformation" under Culp's leadership.

“We question the depth of which consensus captures the ongoing GE evolution,” Mittermaier said in his note to clients. “Analyzing GE is not trivial and requires a detailed segment level analysis. This is what we have done. Our view is based on a multitude of proprietary data.”

GE shares were marked 4.1% higher in the opening minutes of Thursday trading to change hands at $11.42 each, a move that would extend the stock's gain since late August, when reports of alleged accounting issues hammered shares in the group, to around 44%.

Mittermaier also said he sees industrial free cash flows rising to around $2.3 billion next year, adding the drag on flows from its power and renewable energy unit should easy by around $2 billion.

GE boosted its own full-year industrial cash flow forecast in October, while holding its profit guidance in place, after a better-than-expected set of third quarter earnings figures provided yet another indication that Culp's turnaround plans are starting to gain traction.

The closely watched industrial free cash flow forecast, which is used as a gauge of efficiency, was lifted to a range of flat to up $2 billion when compared to 2019, a notable improvement from the prior range of between negative and plus $1 billion. GE also reiterated that said it sees adjusted earnings per share in the region of 55 cents to 65 cents per share.

Prior to the third quarter results, GE said it would educe its pension liabilities by as much as $8 billion, with further debt reductions planned for the coming months, as it moves to trim its weighty balance sheet and improve financial efficiencies. 

GE said it would freeze its U.S. pension plan for around 20,000 employees with salaried benefits, as well as supplementary benefits for around 700 additional employees, in a move it expects will reduce liabilities by between $5 billion and $8 billion and net debt by between $4 billion and $5 billion.  

Prior to that announcement, GE's pension was estimated to have a $31 billion shortfall in terms of meeting obligations to around 620,000 current and former employees, around 430,000 of which are covered by U.S. pension law. The overall liability was last pegged at around $92 billion, and was covered by around $62 billion in assets.

New CEO Culp, who has insisted 2019 would be a "year of change" for the group, has targeted asset sales of around $38 billion to address both the company's longer-term debt profile and its underfunded pension liabilities.

Earlier this year, Culp reached a deal to sell GE's Biopharma division to Danaher Corporation (DHR) - Get Report for around $21 billion, and said it would trim its holding in Houston-based oil services group Baker Hughes (BHGE) - Get Report to less than 50% as it moves to raise $3 billion and reduce its overall debt.