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Buy, Sell or Hold: General Electric Co.

What investor wouldn’t want to own General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE)?

After all:

  • With a market value of $300 billion, it’s the biggest industrial company in America.
  • It owns one of the original “Big Three” television broadcasting networks in NBC – though it also operates the successful “informative portal” MSNBC in conjunction with high-tech heavyweight Microsoft Corp. (MSFT).
  • Of the 12 firms that were part of the original Dow Jones Industrial Average, this is the only one that remains.
  • It strives to be either first or second in every business it operates.
  • It’s one of the very few major industrial companies in the world to enjoy a AAA debt rating – an achievement made all the more remarkable by the fact that it operates a massive financial-services business.
  • It’s a major player in the fast-growing emerging markets of Eastern Europe, Latin America and Asia – and it’s been a market force in China for more than a decade.
  • And it raises its dividend almost every year.

Unfortunately, all hasn’t been well in GE-Land for some time. Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey R. Immelt, a longtime insider who took over the top job in 2001, hasn’t been able to achieve the growth or consistency that legendary predecessor John F. “Neutron Jack” Welch seemed able to maintain so effortlessly during his 20-year stewardship of GE (1981-2001). Nor does he enjoy the Wall Street adoration that Welch always seemed to command.

Immelt hasn’t been able to achieve the predictable consistency that was a hallmark of Welch’s days at GE’s helm.

Even so, when GE reported its first quarter results on April 11 – and badly missed analysts’ estimates – it was a shocker to Wall Street. Nobody I know remembers the last time that GE missed earnings. The stock sold off sharply and nothing the company has done since then has been enough to restore confidence in the U.S. industrial heavyweight.

But this isn’t a cause for concern. Indeed, this actually represents a rare buying opportunity. Let me explain …

GE is managed with a very strong discipline and it is this discipline that leads us to point out that buying GE on weakness is an excellent idea.  The company’s portfolio of businesses is run with a set of very strict criteria destined to maximize shareholder value. And those guidelines are “static:” They evolve to stay ahead of the rapidly changing global marketplace.

Indeed, in late July, GE announced a reorganization that pares its six main business lines into four business units to take advantage of the world’s most enduring and promising long-term growth trends. Those new units consist of:

  • GE Technology Infrastructure, led by Vice Chairman John Rice, which includes healthcare, aviation, transportation and enterprise solutions.
  • GE Infrastructure, headed by John Krenicki, which will include energy, oil & gas and water.
  • GE Capital, led by Vice Chairman Mike Neal, which brings together all of the company’s financial-services businesses, including commercial finance, GE Money, the corporate treasury, and the industry verticals.
  • and NBC Universal, headed by Jeff Zucker, which will remain unchanged.

In the sweeping reorganization, GE's Commercial Finance, GE Money, GE Industrial and GE Healthcare were folded into new, expanded business segments. Immelt has said GE will consider selling portions of GE Money, which provides banking and credit services.

Under Immelt, the Fairfield, Conn.-based GE has been slimming down and refocusing in an effort to create a less-cyclical company. It’s already ridded itself of business units that weren’t driving profitability. Last year, GE offloaded its underperforming plastics business, selling it to a Saudi Arabian company for $11.6 billion. Back in May, GE announced plans to spin off or sell its century-old home appliance business. When it found no serious takers, it announced in July that it would spin off the entire business unit.

These are the right moves to make, and show that GE is going to focus on such broad global trends as infrastructure development. For infrastructure alone there’s an estimated $40 trillion worth of projects that need to be done around the world.

Commercial finance also will be important. To that end, GE recently announced the formation of a new joint venture with an Abu Dhabi government investment company that will bring a badly needed $4 billion worth of outside capital into the commercial finance business, which has been weakened by the financial crisis.

The deal with the Mubadala Development Co. also will launch or broaden several other ventures with the Persian Gulf sovereign wealth fund, which expects to become one of the top 10 institutional investors in GE. That, too, is a good move, as it connects GE with one of the key emerging sources of worldwide capital – sovereign funds – while also creating a relationship with a leading player in one of the world’s top growing markets – the Middle East.

The themes that define GE’s business portfolio underscore the company’s commitment to establishing sustainable competitive advantages in high-growth, high-margin markets.

For example, its infrastructure businesses are enjoying very fast rates of growth, thanks to industrialization and urbanization in the emerging markets and the weak U.S. dollar.  This business, which supplies and later maintains highly differentiated, high-margin products where the company commands market leadership – or is at least a very close second: Jet engines for military jets and commercial airliners, turbines for electric power plants, and elements for wind generation. They are delivering more than half of the industrial unit revenue and enjoy strong double-digit growth.

GE is poised to enjoy very fast rates of growth in the years to come as its business line-up potential starts kicking in, as we are already seeing in the infrastructure business.

The recent earnings miss was mainly due to real estate deals that could not close because of the financial freeze-up in the global credit markets, last-minute charge-offs in GE’s finance business, and some weakness in the company’s U.S. industrial results.  This temporary situation has subsequently seen some consistent improvement as banks take losses and recapitalize, and as the stimulative measures of both the U.S. Federal Reserve and the U.S. government provide the anticipated boosts to the U.S. economy. In this sense, the U.S. economy should re-accelerate in the year’s second half, lifting the performances of the financial, media and industrial businesses in this country.

GE, with its typical discipline, will continue to divest slower-growing business units, using the realized capital to invest in faster-growing businesses. As this business plan evolves and the U.S. economic growth accelerates, the company should clearly outperform the much-lowered expectations that Wall Street analysts established to following the company’s earnings miss.

It is time to buy GE with a medium to long term, while enjoying a 4.16% dividend yield that is superior to 10-year U.S. Treasury bonds.

Here’s one other thing to consider: GE has a long history of boosting its dividend payout in the fourth quarter. So buy now and watch as the yield on your original purchase price escalates year after year after year.

If you are hesitant to endure market volatility, just dollar-cost average over a few weeks as you buy into this top U.S. company.

Action to Take: BUY shares of General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE), and capitalize on its rebirth as a U.S. industrial powerhouse, perhaps using the dollar-cost-averaging technique to smooth out market volatility as you build your position in this stock.

[Editor’s Note: Horacio Marquez was working as a vice president of the Merrill Lynch Emerging Markets Fixed Income Group in 1994 when he correctly predicted that both Argentina and Mexico were headed for currency crises – cementing his reputation as an expert on both the emerging markets and on the nuances of global finance. Now Marquez brings that expertise to you with his newly created "Shadow Stock Trader" service. To find out how to subscribe, please click here. "Buy, Sell or Hold" is a brand-new Money Morning feature that so far has covered such companies as Cisco Systems Inc. (CS), ABB Ltd (ADR: ABB), Cummins Inc. (CMI), Chevron Corp. (CVX), and Valero Energy Corp. (VLO). Our analysis of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. (BRK.A, BRK.B), the investment vehicle run by famed investing guru Warren Buffett, is now planned for next Monday’s issue of Money Morning. ]

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