BY: Chuck Carnevale, F.A.S.T. Graphs, Inc.
Jeffrey R. Immelt is only the 12th person to serve as leader of General Electric Co. (GE) since Thomas Edison founded the company in 1878. Upon taking over the reins of this great American corporation, Jeffrey R. Immelt faced two difficult challenges: First, he had to fill the shoes of Jack Welch, one of the most respected CEOs in all the world. Second, he took over the reins from Jack with General Electric trading at one of the highest valuations it ever had.
The following earnings and price correlated F.A.S.T. Graphs™ looks at General Electric Co. (GE) when Jeffrey R. Immelt first took the reins up to just before the great recession of 2008. There are two points that I emphasize with this graph. First, in order to be fair to Mr. Immelt, we should acknowledge that General Electric (GE) was significantly overvalued when he took charge. Second, we should give him the same credit we gave Jack Welch regarding operating results.
Mr. Immelt orchestrated a steady, and above-average earnings growth rate of 8.9% (the S&P 500 grew earnings at 5.7% per annum during this same time frame). However, when we look at the performance results associated with the earnings and price correlated graph from 2001 to 2007, we discover that shareholders had a negative total return, even when considering dividends. But my point is, the culprit was over-valuation, not poor management of the business. From the standpoint of rewarding shareholders, Mr. Immelt was behind the eight ball from the get-go because he inherited a highly inflated company.
The Full Jeffrey R. Immelt Era
When we look at the complete Jeffrey R. Immelt Era by looking beyond 2007 up to and through the great recession, we discover real reasons for General Electric's recent poor performance. A major fact of the Jack Welch legacy was an aggressive campaign in the early to mid-1990s to make General Electric a dominant player in the growing financial services sector. Consequently, by the end of the decade financial services revenues grew from a mere 25% to 30% in the late 80s, to over 60% of General Electric revenues by 1996.
Therefore, mostly attributable to the financial debacle of 2008 and 2009, General Electric, with its huge exposure to this sector, saw earnings fall 16% in 2008 followed by a 44% drop in 2009. As the following earnings and price correlated graph illustrates, General Electric’s stock price followed their earnings down. From the accompanying performance chart we also discover that this financial stress forced General Electric to cut their dividends by 34% in 2009, and an additional 49% in 2010.
On a more positive note, General Electric (GE) today is a more balanced conglomerate than it was just prior to entering the great recession of 2008. The newly named GE Capital provided just 30% of revenues for the fourth quarter of 2010. And most importantly, GE Capital is once again contributing to the firm's profitability as the financial services business is steadily improving. And overall, General Electric has begun growing earnings again, which have led to three modest dividend increases in the last 12 months.
Nevertheless, even when considering all the mitigating factors, General Electric shareholder returns under Jeff Immelt have been less-than-satisfactory and below-average. As a result, this once beloved Wall Street darling has become reviled by most investors. On many levels I find this ironic because I remember being severely chastised for warning shareholders about the extended valuation of General Electric shares in the late 90s. The stock was going up, Jack Welch was a genius and how dare I criticize this great American company.
General Electric - The Last 20 years
The following F.A.S.T. Graphs™ summarize what has been written in this article thus far. A picture is worth 1000 words, and the following pictures speak volumes about what really happened with this great American business and its recent history management team. We see a solid earnings growth record where both Jack Welch and Jeffrey Immelt contributed. We also see how the company was punished during the great recession by focusing more on services than manufacturing. Jack Welch started it, Jeff Immelt inherited it, and he is left with the job of fixing it.
Additionally, the following pictures also tell us a lot about valuation based on emotion rather than fundamentals. The excessive overvaluation we saw during the irrational exuberant period was painfully and rapidly corrected when General Electric’s profitability growth slowed down from 2002 to 2005, even though it continued to grow modestly. However, after General Electric's stock price reverted to the mean, their stock price once again tracked earnings up to and through the great recession and into the current recovery. Finally, through the associated performance chart we see the blemishes on dividend growth that earnings weakness created.
This last graph shows the same picture logarithmically. The relationship between stock price and earnings is clearly evident when examining this graph.
General Electric - The Future