For now, investors gauging General Electric (GE - Get Report) CEO Jeffrey Immelt's progress toward delivering $2 of profit per share in 2018 can monitor benchmarks such as fourth-quarter shipments of a new, more fuel-efficient jet engine and orders from the recently acquired Alstom energy business.
But there's a wildcard that may deliver much more spectacular growth, though on a longer and fuzzier timeline: President-elect Donald Trump's plan to cut corporate tax rates to 15% from as much as 35%. It's a vision that moves closer to reality with the real estate mogul's inauguration on Friday, just hours after the Boston-based conglomerate reports its earnings for the three months through December.
GE is "demonstrably upbeat not only about the prospects for tax reform occurring and a positive impact on their tax rates that could, in the U.S., fall to very nominal levels" but also about the economic benefits of manufacturers pulling production back inside the country as Trump has urged, Nicholas Heymann, an analyst with William Blair, said in a telephone interview.
Ultimately, such developments mean manufacturers will "come from the backwaters of influencing the economy" as they poured capital into dividends and buybacks rather than new factories to "their historical role as pre-eminent drivers of the U.S. economy," Heymann said.
While that will likely take years to fully materialize, Heymann said, GE is well-positioned to deliver tangible gains to its stockholders in the interim. The 124-year-old company, which traces its roots to Thomas Edison's invention of the light bulb, is expected to report earnings of 46 cents a share in the fourth-quarter with full-year profit of $1.49, the average estimates compiled by FactSet.
Immelt, who took the helm from Jack Welch in September 2001, has spent years refocusing GE on its industrial roots, emphasizing digital manufacturing and businesses from power plants to locomotives while selling the entertainment and insurance divisions as well as most of the once-sprawling lending unit.
The CEO told investors in December that GE would turn a profit of as much as $1.70 this year while working toward the $2 target. By 2018, he said, Alstom will contribute as much as 20 cents a share in earnings, compared with a nickel last year.
GE paid $10.6 billion for France-based Alstom's energy business in 2015, an acquisition that was the largest in its history.
"I like the Alstom deal more and more as time goes on," Immelt said. "What we know in this year is that we can execute on the cost synergies -- that is never an easy task given such a big footprint in Europe. The technology has made us better, so the bottoming cycle in gas turbines has improved because of what Alstom brings to the party."
Gas turbines, used in electrical power plants, are among the key products in GE's power business, which generated $21 billion in revenue last year, making it one of the company's two largest units.
The integration of Alstom, along with the timetable for completing the $7.4 billion merger of GE's oil business with Baker Hughes (BHI) announced in late October, are key to the company's performance targets, Heymann noted. Another noteworthy development will be shipments of the new LEAP engine, a more fuel-efficient jet developed as fuel prices surged prior to 2014.
Deliveries, when manufacturers book a large portion of the sales price, were expected to reach 120 for the full year, he said.
Outside of operations, a driver of GE's share price, which has climbed 9.3% in the past year to $31.13, has been management's plan to return billions to shareholders as sales of its massive loan portfolio are completed. As of mid-December, Immelt had signed agreements to sell $195 billion of GE Capital's assets and was on target to deliver $30 billion in dividends and stock buybacks in 2016.
In the digital business, a pivotal part of the CEO's long-term vision for GE, orders climbed 11% in the third quarter as the company worked to buoy the number of developers using its Predix operating system. Immelt said last month that GE garnered about $300 million in Predix orders in 2016 and expected $1 billion this year.
"It's generating productivity," he said.
The Predix platform, which does for factories what Apple's iOS did for smartphones, allows companies to write compatible programs that can optimize equipment in industries from oil production to railroads. Among its innovations is a "digital twin," a software model of a client's equipment or processes that lets manufacturers monitor performance as well as diagnose, and ultimately predict, problems.
Some 20,000 developers were working on the platform in December, a 25% increase from the end of September.
To support its digital operations, GE is rebuilding its tech muscle through steps such as the recent relocation of its corporate headquarters from Connecticut to Boston -- home to 55 colleges and universities including Harvard -- and adding or expanding operations centers in Providence, R.I.; Atlanta and Miami.