General Electric ( GE) kept its word. As promised, the huge conglomerate delivered a first-quarter profit of 32 cents a share -- up 1% from a year ago -- that matched the top of management's guidance. Analysts polled by Thomson First Call had expected a penny less. In the latest quarter, only two divisions -- energy and insurance -- failed to post double-digit earnings growth. But the company suggested that investors direct their attention away from at least one of those units. "Events or trends in a particular segment may be so significant as to obscure patterns and trends of our ... businesses in total," GE explained on Thursday. "For this reason, we believe that investors may find it useful to see our first quarter 2004 earnings without the decline in sales of large gas turbines in the U.S. and decline in non-cash earnings from our U.S. pension plans." The company instead highlighted its strengths. It pointed out that industrial orders had jumped by 20% in the latest quarter. And sales by its "growth platforms" had rocketed 29%. In a conference call with analysts early Thursday, GE CEO Jeff Immelt celebrated the company's latest quarter and promised even better results to come. "This is really the broadest growth we've seen since the first half of 2000," he said. "The company is in great shape, and we have very good momentum going forward." GE went on to tighten its full-year guidance from $1.55 to $1.65 per share to $1.59 to $1.65 per share, excluding the impact of dilution. It said it will offer firmer guidance in 30 days. GE's stock inched up 25 cents to $31.65 early Thursday.
Weak SpotsStill, profits actually fell at two business units. The energy division, hurt by the glutted U.S. power market, saw first-quarter turbine orders tumble by one-third since last year. However, the company still sold more turbines than at least one bond analyst had expected. And it continues to enjoy growth in international sales.
"International demand, especially from China, is partially offsetting the decline in shipments," BNP Paribas analyst Traci Hallett noted. "However, 2004 appears to be the bottom of the cycle for energy." GE confirmed on Thursday that it expects the division to turn the corner -- and post 15% profit growth -- in 2005. Meanwhile, GE's insurance business, shrunk by a major portfolio redesign, posted lower first-quarter profits as well. "The reorganization of the insurance business centered around disposing of operations that did not meet return hurdles," Hallett explained. GE's "insurance business should perform better in 2004, although it will contribute a smaller percentage of net income." Net income overall grew 8% from a year ago, when a noncash transition charge lowered quarterly results. Meanwhile, first-quarter revenue came in at $33.4 billion, 10% higher than last year and 5.3% above Wall Street expectations. Cash flow from operations, helped by a $200 million dividend from GE Capital and other "special items," rocketed 67% to $2.6 billion. CFO Keith Sherin on Thursday called the cash flow improvement "tremendous." But the company expects more modest cash flow growth of between 10% and 15% for the year. In the meantime, GE said it is already on its way to delivering another strong quarter -- with "eight to nine out of 11" businesses posting double-digit earnings growth -- as it moves toward companywide profit targets that should materialize next year. "The GE team is doing a great job of executing this year," Immelt said. "We have the businesses and teams in place to achieve long-term growth with high returns."
Growth EnginesDuring the latest quarter, GE's equipment and other services more than doubled its sales -- which hit $2 billion -- and grew profits by 53%. The company's consumer finance business, helped by recent acquisitions, also posted strong growth. Sales rocketed 30% to $3.6 billion, although earnings grew at about just one-third that pace.
Health care, lifted by a surge in diagnostic orders and international business, posted growth in revenue and profits of 17% and 11%, respectively. The division is expected to see its business accelerate even more following the acquisition of diagnostic powerhouse Amersham, which closed on Thursday. GE's infrastructure business, also set to expand on a major acquisition, increased revenue by 15% and profit by 20% in the latest quarter. Meanwhile, the company's transportation division turned in an especially strong quarter -- growing sales by 14% and profit by even more -- as orders for aircraft parts and services revved up. A deal announced this week is expected to generate far more business going forward. Late Tuesday, GE said that it had been chosen as the biggest engine supplier for Boeing's ( BA) news 7E7 airplanes. Smith Barney analyst Jeffrey Sprague pointed to the win as a big one for the already dominant GE. GE "has won over 60% of commercial engine orders over the past decade, and its selection for the 7E7 should cement its leadership position for literally decades," wrote Sprague, who has a buy rating on GE's shares. "The revenue opportunity for 7E7 engines could exceed over $40 billion over the next two decades." Two other divisions posted double-digit growth in both revenue and profits as well. The commercial finance division increased sales by 13% and profits by 10% with help from acquisitions. And advanced materials reported a 12% jump in revenue and a whopping 40% surge in profits. NBC managed to grow profits at nearly twice the pace of sales in the latest quarter. There, earnings jumped 15% to $394 million as the network easily maintained its leadership position by sweeping prime-time awards and attracting huge new crowds to its Bravo and Spanish-language Telemundo channels in particular. The networks plans to bolster its growth even more through a merger with Vivendi Universal ( V) that's expected to close next month.
Finally, GE's consumer and industrial division posted a 16% jump in profits despite a 12% decline in sales. The company said it did increase the sale of high-end appliances -- and introduce a new award-winning refrigerator -- during the first quarter, however. In the end, Immelt declared the quarter a "great" one overall. "We're winning in the marketplace," he said. "The company is stronger than ever."