"Unacceptable" is how John Flannery, the chief executive officer of General Electric Co. (GE - Get Report) , described the company's most recent quarterly results. "Things will not stay the same," he said on a conference call Friday in which he also slashed GE's 2017 projections and outlined restructuring plans.
One other thing that may not the stay the same is the company's $0.96 cents per share dividend, which translates into a 4.04% current yield. Flannery had previously pledged to maintain the struggling conglomerate's dividend, but even that is now on the chopping block for 2018.
It's a "reset year," he said.
So what say analysts about the news that GE isn't committed to maintaining its dividend?
"The probability of a reduction has gone up following this earnings report, but only by a little," said Vahan Janjigian, the chief investment officer of Greenwich Wealth Management. "Even though the dividend per share exceeds the earnings per share, management could probably continue to pay the dividend."
However, management might decide that it would make more sense to cut the dividend and return cash to investors through share buybacks, said Janjigian. "That's what I would have bet on this morning. But the sharp decline at the open followed by the higher close for the day tells me that investors seem to believe that the worst is over."
For his part, Janjigian said Flannery is going to focus on cutting costs aggressively, which should allow the company to keep paying dividends.
"Finally, I think a rise in oil prices will go a long way to improve the company's financial situation," said Janjigian. "I wouldn't bet on a dividend cut if oil rallies to $60."
GE last cut its dividend in 2009 during the financial crisis.
Other analysts, however, suggest that GE's dividend is certainly in more danger given the latest results. "GE seems to be having more restructuring issues than previously thought and that is now coupled with a decline in revenue growth from the power and energy segments of their industrial business," said Steven Gattuso, a senior portfolio manager Courier Capital and an assistant professor at Canisius College.
With a projected operating cash flow of $7 billion (not counting pension contributions) there does not seem to be enough to adequately cover the dividends much less share buybacks and restructuring costs, said Gattuso. "Even with the cost savings increase that was announced by the new CEO, if successful, would only add another $2 billion to cash flow - still
far short of what is needed to cover the current dividend."
Given that, Gattuso said it would not be unreasonable to see a one-third to one-half cut in the current dividend rate.
According to Gattuso, the current quarter reflects a significant challenge of transforming the company after the divestiture of the finance arm coupled with a slowdown in the major industrial business segment of power/energy. "Some of the expenses were non-cash impairment charges but more concerning is the decrease in organic growth and the free cash flow position," he said.
"After reviewing the 'kitchen sink' quarter and listening to Flannery's commentary, we think the probability for a dividend cut is higher than we previously anticipated," said Alex Dietz, a research analyst with Private Asset Management. "The abysmal quarter was largely due to weaker results from the power and oil and gas segments, which both saw declining revenues, profits, and significant margin contraction."
However, Dietz said it's worth noting that the rest of GE businesses performed relatively well with revenues and earnings growth as well as margin expansion. "The company reset expectations for earnings and cash flow, acknowledged problems within their power portfolio, and signaled that the company has a tremendous opportunity to reduce costs and improve efficiencies," he said.
Still, Dietz said the $7 billion guidance for operating cash flow this year is of concern, seeing that the company currently pays out $8 billion a year in dividends. "However, Flannery stated in an interview on CNBC that this $7 billion will not be the norm moving forward, so while some may argue that the company cannot afford its dividend payment, we see this as more of a transitory issue," he said. "With roughly $79 billion in cash and the ability to take on more debt, the company could easily cover the dividend for some time."
On the other side of the coin, with expectations so low and the market widely expecting a dividend cut, Flannery has the political capital to reduce its payout, said Dietz. "This would certainly give management much more flexibility in its restructuring efforts moving forward," he said.
In the main, Dietz still believes the dividend will be paid, but it's worth noting the higher risk of a cut and the increased importance of the Nov. 13 analyst meeting.
Still, there are those who don't see any light at the end of the tunnel.
As suspected, GE's cash flows don't support its $8 billion dividend, not to mention another $6-plus billion in pension funding, capital expenditures and share repurchases previously planned, said Charles Trafton, a managing partner with FlowPoint Capital Partners. "Unfortunately 'The General' needs $3 billion in cost cuts at a time when it can least afford to feed on its seed corn," he said.
GE shares finished down 2.15% to $21.84 on Oct. 24.
Robert Powell is a contributor to TheStreet's Income Seeker, a product presenting the world of opportunities in fixed income and dividend stocks. Click here to learn more.
(This article originally appeared Oct. 21 on Real Money, our premium site for active traders. Click here to get great columns like this from Robert Powell, Jim Cramer and other writers.)
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