After three years of sluggish economic performance, it's not surprising that General Electric's ( GE) chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, would declare this "the best economy in years." But that doesn't mean that economic growth is about to accelerate, or that GE is necessarily a good buy. The conglomerate, which makes everything from aircraft engines to light bulbs, surpassed analysts' earnings expectations by a penny in the second quarter and raised the low end of its annual guidance. But it was Immelt's comments on the economy that received the most attention. "This is the best economy we've seen in years," he said in a statement. "We are very confident about the future." In recent weeks, stocks have slumped amid signs that the overall economy is starting to decelerate. Manufacturing data slipped in June from May while same-store sales were generally mixed last month, with many retailers coming in below analysts' estimates. Job gains were also much weaker than expected in June. Immelt's upbeat remarks seemed to soothe investor concerns about a potential slowdown in growth. But some analysts said the comments weren't particularly meaningful. "Post-2000, we saw components of the industrial economy fall dramatically," said Robert Schenosky, an analyst at Jefferies & Co. "We saw some parts of the economy fall to levels we have not seen since the early 1980s, so ... that statement
by Immelt is not new information." Schenosky also noted that while some of GE's businesses are a proxy for certain end markets, the company isn't necessarily the best barometer for the health of the broader economy. "If you want to look for a proxy on the economy, I think there are better metrics out there," he said. Cody Willard, a partner in a buy-side firm and contributor to TheStreet.com's sister site, RealMoney, said he has no doubt that this is the best economy in years, given that the past three years included a "depression" in technology and telecom and a global economic downturn. "It doesn't take much good news to make this the best economy in years," he said. "It's worrisome that things are likely to get worse from the 'best.'"
Although GE said industrial orders were strong in the second quarter, rising 13%, that was down from the 20% growth in the first quarter. Still, the company did report a 29% increase in services orders in the quarter, up from 8% in the first quarter. Schenosky, who rates GE a hold, wasn't impressed with the company's results in the quarter, noting that per-share earnings were boosted by 3 to 4 cents because of some favorable tax benefits. "Without the tax, the numbers would have actually come in below expectations," he said. The company narrowed its earnings range for the year, but the lower tax rate will add 6 cents to 8 cents a share in the second half, Schenosky said. "You back that out and normalize the tax to what we had prior and you would have sent the quality of earnings into a decline." Other analysts were more sanguine. Jim Kelleher, an analyst at Argus Research, said GE continues to execute well. Indeed, some areas were very strong in the second quarter. Health care profits jumped 33%, compared to an 11% rise in the first quarter. Earnings in the consumer and commercial finance segments rose 17% compared to a 10% increase in the first three months of the year. Still, profits in GE's energy business declined 40% and insurance profits fell 90%. The company divested its Genworth Insurance business during the quarter. "I think they pointed to a cautious broadening in the economy, and that's kind of the most sustainable type," he said. "The media tends to become excited by monthly trends, but any sustainable rise in the economy will be characterized by fits and starts." General Electric posted net earnings of $3.92 billion, or 38 cents a share, in the second quarter, as nine of 11 businesses contributed double-digit increases. In the same period last year, GE earned $3.79 billion, or 38 cents a share. Analysts surveyed by Thomson First Call had forecast 37 cents a share.
The company raised the low end of its annual guidance by a penny, predicting earnings of $1.55 to $1.60 a share before unusual items, compared to prior guidance of $1.54 to $1.60. Analysts expected GE to earn $1.57 per share before items this year. GE also said it was confident that it can deliver 10% to 15% earnings-per-share growth for next year. Revenue rose 11% to $37 billion, boosted by acquisitions of British medical maker Amersham and 80% of Vivendi Universal. Shares of GE rose 25 cents, or 0.8%, to $31.95.