General Electric ( GE) on Friday will dump mountains of data on us in what seems has become a monthly event. This is just a routine quarterly conference call, though, rather than an extra special data dump of the kind they've been scheduling in recent months in a futile attempt to calm investors down. One such marathon conference call last month lasted six hours. I couldn't bear to listen to the whole thing, so I bailed after an hour or so and read a couple of analyst reports after it ended. Here's a sampling of their insight: Jason Feldman of UBS wrote, "Lots of new details from GE yesterday...enough to support almost any view." OK, Jason. And Jason's view is (drumroll, please): Neutral, unchanged. Way to go out on a limb, my man! Not to single out Feldman. Guess what rating Nicole Parent of Credit Suisse slapped on there after the six-hour meeting? Did you say neutral, unchanged? How'd you guess? The whole thing: the data dump, the neutral reports from the Swiss banks (yeah, the Swiss were really neutral in World War II!) just makes me want to slit my throat. At times like that, since I can't slit my throat, but have to actually write something about GE, I want to hear from Nick Heymann of Sterne Agee. Sterne Agee is one of these little research boutiques that seem to appear out of nowhere, even though they usually tell you on their Web site they've been around since 1492. Because they're little and not publicly-traded, they tend to be more hospitable to grizzled old guys who have seen it all and really don't care what anyone thinks of them. (see: Richard X. Bove, currently of Rochdale Securities).
Does Nick know what he's talking about? My sense is that he does, though he tends to say a few radical things like that GE will eventually have to sell a majority stake in its finance unit, and then throw tons of info and opinions at me that are impossible to process. Even though the info and opinions are delivered in a far more entertaining way than when it comes from GE executives (interesting side note: Nick is a former GE employee) the effect is similarly stupefying. Nick will say something like "the market for wind energy has come to a complete stop," and before I even have time to ask how much that contributes to GE's earnings, or how he knows, or whether it might pick up, or whether it's priced in, he's talking about freight train use in China. Both of these things, of course, matter to GE, though probably not as much as how much it pays in taxes on foreign assets. The laws are going to change on this, we think, but with legislation of course, you never know what's going to happen. Much as I wish it were otherwise, it seems unavoidable that as GE goes, so goes the economy, but more so. Except for this: If you buy an exchange-traded fund that tracks the S&P, it will not go to zero, but GE could. Whenever you ask someone, even Nick, if GE actually will go to zero, they say no. When you ask them why, their response often tends to be a variant of "C'mon, it's GE!" This is a little scary.