Updated from 12:22 p.m. ESTGeneral Electric ( GE) reported Friday that its fourth-quarter earnings more than doubled, and the industrial products and media conglomerate projected more strength ahead in 2007. But shares of the corporate bellwether declined as investors eyed continued weakness in the company's plastics business, another pricey acquisition announcement and a financial restatement with some uneasiness. GE's stock was recently down 77 cents, or 2%, to $37.23. The quarterly earnings report caps off GE's 2006 as the company is transforming its portfolio to redeploy capital away from sluggish businesses toward areas that offer higher returns over the long term. GE said Friday it will seek to sell its plastics business, just one day after announcing it will buy Abbott Laboratories' ( ABT) diagnostics business for $8.13 billion. Morningstar analyst Peter Smith said in a research note after the release that GE's results were "impressive" but in line with his expectations. He said the earnings restatement is "not terribly burdensome." Elsewhere, Credit Suisse First Boston analyst Nicole Parent said in a note that the restatement would normally be viewed as a "non-event," but said she sees the weakness in some of GE's manufacturing businesses and the announcement of an "expensive" acquisition deal as weighing on its shares. During a conference call with investors, GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt expressed optimism about the economy for 2007, but he also pointed to some areas of weakness that have weighed on the company's performance.
"Global economic growth continues to be favorable," Immelt said. "Global markets are strong, though we have seen an impact on housing and auto." For the fourth quarter, GE earned $6.58 billion, or 64 cents a share, up from the $3.16 billion, or 30 cents a share, it reported for the year-earlier period. On a continuing-operations basis, GE said its earnings rose 12% for the quarter to $6.68 billion from $5.87 billion a year earlier, while its revenue rose 11% to $44.62 billion from $40.31 billion in the year-ago period. Earnings per share from continuing operations also were 64 cents, matching Wall Street's expectations, according to Thomson Financial. GE's top line beat analysts' mean estimate of $44.18 billion. Strength came from GE's infrastructure unit, where profits were up 19%. Its health care business saw earnings jump 16%. Its media conglomerate, NBC Universal, made progress in its turnaround and even beat ratings leader CBS ( CBS) to be the most-watched U.S broadcast network for the week ended Jan. 1. NBC Universal's earnings climbed 5% over the fourth quarter a year ago , while the company's commercial finance division posted a profit gain of 18% over the year-ago period. For the first quarter, GE expects earnings of 43 cents to 45 cents a share, and for all of 2007, it's forecasting profits between $2.18 and $2.23 a share. Those estimates are line with the company's previous forecasts. Analysts forecast earnings of 44 cents a share for the first quarter and $2.22 for the year.
In a development that Immelt characterized as a disappointment, GE is restating its financial results from 2001 to 2005 and the first three quarters of 2006 due to adjustments in the way it accounts for interest rate swaps, a hedging tactic the company uses in its financial services unit's commercial-paper program. The decision came after talks with the Securities and Exchange Commission's chief accounting office amid a probe of GE's accounting. The move wiped $343 million off earnings going back to 2001 but had no effect on the fourth quarter. The restatement will have no effect on the company's cash position, and Immelt said it would be a small boost for GE's net income over the next 10 years. The company also announced it is evaluating the disposition of its struggling plastics business, which has been hurt by rising raw materials costs in recent years. The business is worth roughly $10 billion. Immelt predicted there will be a high level of interest from potential buyers for the business, and he said it would be "better off outside the GE umbrella." On Thursday, the company announced the agreement to buy Abbott's diagnostics business to bolster its health care division. Abbott's decision to sell the business, which has been a slow-grower for the pharmaceutical giant, jibes with its own strategy of seeking higher-growth businesses.
GE also recently agreed to buy Smiths Group PLC's aerospace unit for $4.8 billion and the oil and gas operations of Vetco International for $1.9 billion. Immelt said he expects to close all three acquisitions in the first half of this year, and amid all these transactions, he said there will be no change in GE's stock repurchasing strategy. "We still intend to execute on our $5-7 billion buyback plan for 2007," Immelt said. "This buyback will be back-end loaded after we complete our business development activity, and we are on track to achieve our 20%
return on total capital goal by 2008."