Former CEO Jeffrey Immelt's reimagining of General Electric Co. (GE) - Get Report as a streamlined digital manufacturer rather than a heavily regulated conglomerate that made big money competing with banks has left his successor with a dilemma.
While the Boston-based company is smaller, its dividend hasn't been lowered. In fact, it has increased -- to a total of about $8 billion currently.
That's against a backdrop of 20% less revenue than in 2013, the year before Immelt spun off a consumer lending business and began selling GE Capital's loan portfolio. And so far this year, GE has invested $200 million more in manufacturing businesses than they have returned, complicating a full-year industrial cash-generation target of as much as $14 billion.
Such trends, coupled with Immelt's decision to step down as chairman three months earlier than planned and the departure of some of his top lieutenants, raise the odds that new CEO John Flannery will cut the payout, which is prized by GE's individual, or "retail,"investors. Goldman Sachs Group Inc. recommends trimming it as much as 37%, to $5 billion, or 60 cents a share.
"It's a conundrum for them," Vertical Research Partners analyst Jeff Sprague said in a telephone interview. "Finance 101 would tell you that you should probably cut it -- it's not a good business practice to have all or most of the cash flow out the door in a dividend. But there is a big retail base here, and it's important to them."
GE has said publicly that the dividend remains a top priority while conceding it might re-examine planned stock buybacks. Investors expect Flannery -- who became CEO on Aug. 1 and wasn't slated to become chairman until January -- to address those matters no later than Nov. 13, when he details his plan to boost profitability and cash flow after months of meetings with shareholders.
He may even make an announcement as soon as Friday, Oct. 20, when GE reports third-quarter earnings. The new CEO has already promised a thorough evaluation of the company's portfolio, which ranges from medical equipment to jet engines and locomotives, amid pressure from investors including activist Trian Partners to buoy both profitability and cash flow.
Last week, the company gave a seat on its board to Trian's chief investment officer, Ed Garden -- just days after announcing the retirements of vice chairs John Rice, Beth Comstock and Jeff Bornstein, who also held the title of CFO.
Bornstein's exit, in particular, was startling since Flannery had described him as recently as June as a partner in the company's turnaround efforts, Sprague noted. Not only was Bornstein given the title of vice chair at that time, he was offered incentives to remain with the company.
That raises the specter "that they are thinking about something more draconian, like cutting the dividend," Sprague said. With both Immelt and Bornstein out, "any ties to the past have been negated, any obligations to stand by things that have been stated."
Prior to the announcement of Bornstein's departure, Sprague said, he would have placed the odds of a dividend cut at 25%. Now, he sees them closer to 50%.
TheStreet's Jim Cramer, whose charitable trust holds GE stock, has also said a reduction is likely, and Bloomberg dividend analysts are predicting the company will trim the payment to 18 cents a quarter from 24 cents as soon as Friday.
Indeed, the share price already reflects a 20% chance of a cut, Goldman analyst Joe Ritchie wrote in a note to clients, pointing out that the company's U.S. cash flow is insufficient to cover its capital commitments.
"While the GE dividend has long been considered guaranteed and would be difficult to cut, we think the current dividend doesn't allow enough financial flexibility for GE Industrial to invest in growth," Ritchie said.
While GE has pared its portfolio significantly in the past several years years, combining its Oil & Gas unit with Baker Hughes (BHGE) - Get Report and selling NBC to Comcast, Ritchie argued that major asset sales shouldn't be a focal point in the near future.
Despite GE's statement that "everything is on the table," he noted, Flannery is new to his role and most of GE's disparate businesses make strategic sense together -- either because of steady earnings in some that offset cyclical drops in others or shared technology.
The new CEO hasn't offered any hints about which businesses he might sell, but he has said he's fully committed to digital manufacturing, the initiative championed by Immelt that led to the creation of Predix, a software platform that does for factories what Apple Inc.'s (AAPL) - Get Report iOS and Google's Android did for smartphones.
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He has also moved to cut costs, starting with the sale of a fleet of corporate aircraft used by senior executives, according to a person familiar with the matter. GE had long required its CEO to use company aircraft for both business and personal trips, and Immelt's 2016 compensation included $257,000 worth of travel on GE planes.
Additionally the company is scrapping a practice of leasing cars for higher-level managers, which cost GE $112,000 for five top executives in 2016, and shrinking corporate expenses overall, including for its new Boston headquarters, the person said.
The conglomerate has been under pressure from Trian since 2015, when the firm acquired a stake that's valued at about $1.67 billion today and drafted a white paper outlining how the conglomerate might expand its already large stock-buyback program.
The firm suggested at the time that GE might be worth as much as $45 a share by the end of 2017. Instead, a rally that began as Immelt was winding down the GE Capital lending business peaked at about $32 in mid-2016, then faded to the mid-$20 range as the company struggled with falling oil prices and cash flow from manufacturing.
The shares climbed 2% to $23.58 in New York trading on Thursday.
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