Updated from 9:20 a.m. EST
Despite attempts by
to distance itself from the financial troubles of another diversified manufacturer --
-- analysts say investors are right to ask questions about the company and, indeed, any large conglomerate with diverse business lines.
General Electric reiterated Tuesday that it is on track to meet first-quarter and full-year estimates, saying it has a "system of controllership" that is "second to none," with "tremendous financial strength."
The firm said earnings should grow 17% to 18% this year to between $1.65 and $1.67 a share. GE is also confident that first-quarter earnings will meet or slightly exceed consensus estimates of 34 cents a share.
"GE isn't a 'faith' stock -- it's a performance stock. And we're on track for another record performance," CEO Jeffrey Immelt said in a statement.
Shares of General Electric have fallen 11% since the start of the year as investors shied away from large corporations, fearing they are more vulnerable to accounting scrutiny.
In the wake of
financial meltdown, complex business models and companies with off balance sheet debt have also been thrust under the microscope. Tyco, in particular, has seen its shares plummet in recent weeks on concerns that its business is too complicated, its financial performance is too hard to track, and its accounting may have been too aggressive.
Still, analysts say General Electric has a strong track record for producing consistent and predictable earnings growth, and some believe the stock has been unduly punished given its past performance, strong management and triple-A credit rating. The company has virtually no debt outside of financing receivables at GE Capital Services. But it's the GE Capital business that has some investors worried.
"This is obviously the best-run company in the world," said Rob Plaza, an analyst at Morningstar. "The company has had nice smooth earnings growth for the last 30 years, but a lot of that has to do with GE Capital."
Plaza said GE Capital has, in the past, announced one-time gains that allowed the company to meet its estimates. "They've been accused of managing their earnings plenty of times," he said.
Given the number of companies and assets held by the unit, he added, disclosure is "pretty limited." GE Capital comprises 24 businesses, providing a variety of financial services. The unit has assets of more than $370 billion.
GE spokesman David Frail said GE Capital is much less complex "than current wisdom would have it" and that a "great deal of information" has been provided in the firm's financial statement.
Asked if General Electric has any off balance sheet debt, Frail said it has about $55 billion in assets in special purpose entities. General Electric has total assets of about $500 billion.
"These are high-quality, low-risk assets with low returns and bear no resemblance whatsoever to anything like those described at Enron," he said. "These have been rated and reviewed by S&P and Moody's, and GE still has the highest credit rating."
Todd Hinrichs, an analyst at ABN Amro, isn't concerned about GE's accounting practices, saying they are "about as good as you can get."
"It's always good that investors are asking questions, but whether they'll stick is another issue. My guess is that with GE, they won't," he said.
Under the Hood
Nevertheless, some analysts insist that greater disclosure is necessary.
"They do have off balance sheet debt, and a lot of that is very legitimate, but more details on these arrangements would be welcome by Wall Street," noted William Fiala, an analyst at Edward Jones.
Analysts say they would be surprised if, at the end of the day, GE changed its business model in reaction to the latest accounting woes at Enron and Tyco. After all, diversification has proved beneficial for the company, allowing it to withstand major fluctuations in the economy and insulating it from sector-specific problems. "They're very large, but that in itself doesn't mean there are issues," Fiala noted.
Still, many believe that GE is in a position to set the standard for the rest of the investment community by going well beyond the requirements set forth and disclosing as much as possible about its financial transactions.
"When it comes to accounting, the fear is what you don't know," said Fiala.