Has GE's CEO overstayed his welcome?

The company's shares have been stuck for more than a decade.

By Jonathan Berr Jan 20, 2012 12:54PM
Shares of General Electric (GE) have plunged more than 50% over the past decade, underperforming the S&P 500, which rose 16% during the same period. CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who has run the company since September 2001, deserves much of the blame for the stock's awful performance.

The Fairfield, Conn., company, which on Friday reported disappointing results, is a handful for anyone to manage because of its diverse portfolio of businesses. Were it created today, there is no way anyone would cobble together a group of divisions such as energy infrastructure, appliances and medical imaging equipment that have no apparent connection. The company's involvement in the entertainment business made the least sense of all, so it's good that GE transferred control of NBC Universal to Comcast (CMCSA).

Revenue fell 8% to $38 billion from $41.2 billion a year earlier, trailing analysts' estimates even with the sale of NBC Universal. Net income fell 18% $3.73 billion, or 35 cents a share. Profit from continuing operations was 39 cents, 1 cent ahead of expectations.

The company's earnings get more discussion in the following video.

Post continues below.
Immelt, whose 2010 compensation more than doubled to $15.2 million versus 2009, has tried to do right by shareholders. Last month, GE raised its dividend for the fourth time in two years, reversing a series of cuts that began during the depths of the Great Recession. GE's stock dividend yield is 3.55%, well ahead of the 2.09% average of the S&P 500. Immelt is trying to give investors confidence to hang in there, and there are some signs of strength.

Infrastructure orders in the fourth quarter rose 15% from a year earlier to $28.6 billion, boosting the year-end backlog to a record $200 billion. Earnings at GE Capital, which have long been a drag on the company's results, rose 58% to $1.6 billion. At the end of the year, GE had $85 billion in cash and cash equivalents. Still, GE is not out of the woods.

As Immelt said in the earnings press release, "We expect continued volatility in 2012 and have prepared for it by investing in new products and technology, expanding our growth market footprint and taking important steps to strengthen risk management." He's hedging his bets, obviously, but investors have heard this all before.

Now is the time to put up or shut up and get out. So far, investors are not impressed. GE shares were down more than 1% at midday to $18.93.

Jonathan Berr is a freelance business writer. He does not own shares in the companies mentioned.
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