The last earnings report for General Electric (GE) was an unmitigated disaster, and the financial media press pounced. Shortly after the release, shares were down nearly 9% in after-hours trading, and pundits big and small took advantage of the collapse to criticize everything from the company’s balance sheet to its corporate culture to its moat.
Then something strange happened.
The following day, shares opened deeply red, but the red faded throughout the trading day until the stock ended up over 1% by the end of trading. Granted, that bull run didn’t last long, but the shocking erasure of all the losses from the bad earnings was exactly the opposite of the rally cry from financial journalists reveling in the major EPS miss.
And it was a big miss. The company’s profits fell short of expectations for the first time since 2014. At 29 cents per share, EPS was 40% off market expectations. Since this dividend-growing ticker is a value investor’s favorite, that poor result cut to the core of why so many invest in the stock. The new P/E ratio, flirting with 30, was more suitable for a growth stock like Alphabet (GOOG), which has a P/E ratio of nearly 36.
But Google’s big valuation is a result of big revenue growth. Last quarter, revenues of $26 billion were 21% higher than a year ago, and revenues have grown by more than 10% since—well, since Google has existed. So that high price point is acceptable, because it’s a growth stock.
And that’s where financial pundits got blind-sighted. GE’s revenue rose 14.3% in the third quarter, which is a lot better than last quarter’s -11.8% decline. Digging deeper, there’s more reason to see growth in the blue chip. The firm’s backlog rose 3% year-over-year and orders are up 11%. Organic revenues fell 1%, which means most of that order and revenue growth is incremental—that is, coming from entirely new operations, customer-bases, and products.
And if we go deeper still, we see that most of that revenue is from the Oil & Gas Segment, which rose 81% year-over-year to offset declines in transportation and lighting (down 14% and 16% respectively). Power was also down 4%, although Renewable Energy (up 5%), Aviation (up 8%), and Healthcare (up 5%) showed increases.
The sharp increase in Oil & Gas revenue contributed to the weak earnings, since that segment reported a small loss while all other operations were profitable. What’s more, the most profitable segments (Renewable Energy, Healthcare, and Aviation) are seeing small but still positive growth, and those profits rose from a year ago.
Going forward, analysts need to do more than just look at earnings and fret over GE’s dividend. Of course, a lot of retail investors buy GE for the dividend, so if free cash flow continues to weaken (and weaken it did—cash from operating activities was down 94% this quarter), the dividend could be in danger, and that could spell disaster for GE’s stock price. At the same time, analysts need to look deeper and see if that revenue growth can translate into stronger earnings in the future—in other words, is GE now a growth company that can grow into profits to cover its legacy identity as a value company?
To really understand the future of this company, analysts should look closely at new CEO John Flannery’s plans to exit businesses worth $20 billion over the next 1-2 years. This could result in a lot of liquidity that could cover the dividend, but if Flannery sells businesses that have the nicest margins, that could be a short-term solution that disguises a much bigger long-term problem.
For now, the market is hopeful that the dividend is going to be safe. Analysts need to dig deeper and try to figure out how long they will be safe—and if they will get safer, and if so, when.