In a recent interview, Warren Buffett told CNBC’s Becky Quick that he would buy General Electric (GE) at the “right number”, which led to speculation that Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A)(BRK.B) may currently be looking to get back into a GE position. Let’s remember that it was only a few short months ago that Berkshire disclosed that it sold a small GE position and build its stake in Synchrony Financial (SYF) [a 2014 spin-off from GE]. Since this announcement, GE shares are down over 20% while SYF shares are up over 30%.
Talk about great timing, right? After a rough 2017 (GE shares were down ~45% compared to the S&P 500 being up ~20%), the company’s stock has actually performed pretty well in the new year. So, what should investors do now? I believe that the “right number” for this industrial conglomerate depends on many factors, including your time horizon, but, in my opinion, you will not get burned if you layer into a GE position at current levels.
My 12-month Price Target
Before the recent run-up for GE shares, I am on record for saying that my 12-month price target was $19 per share. This target still holds true today, even with shares trading slightly below this mark ($18.76 as of January 12, 2018). Some may be asking why a person that is so bullish on GE long-term is standing firm with a price target of $19 but, in my opinion, it is important to note that the real tests (i.e., quarterly earnings reports and management commentary) are still yet to come.
Management already guided for adjusted EPS to be in the range of $1.00-$1.07 for full-year 2018, so, even after the 2017 blood bath, GE shares are not as cheap as what you would expect.
While I believe that Mr. Flannery low balled the 2018 guidance, which is a smart approach given the moving pieces that he will have to contend with, it is still too early to say that GE is a must own at today’s price. GE is trading below the average forward P/E ratio of its peer group but, in my opinion, GE’s management team has a lot to prove before the conglomerate can make the argument that it warrants a valuation that is in line with the likes of Honeywell (HON) or 3M (MMM).
So, at the end of the day, I am sticking with the 12-month price target of $19 for GE because there is definitely going to be concerns (i.e., cash flows metrics, growing debt balance, Power struggles) that the bears will run with in 2018. GE’s 2018 stock performance will largely depend on how management is able to fend off the bears, in my opinion. If successful, $19 per share will be way too low of a price target but it is still too early to tell.
But, on the other hand, there have definitely been some positive developments for GE over the last few months that could result in this company eventually warranting a higher price target later in the year.
The backdrop for GE has improved since management provided the 2018 outlook in November 2017 but I believe that the two items mentioned below have the potential to be significant tailwinds in 2018.
(1) Oil Prices
The rise in crude oil prices has resulted in a great deal of attention for GE, and rightfully so, as this company is highly levered to the commodity.
Remember, GE merged its oil & gas business with Baker Hughes in 2017 to create Baker Hughes, a GE Company (BHGE). No one really knows what will happen with oil and/or gas prices in 2018 or 2019, but it is hard to deny that it has been a great start for these commodities in the new year. And, BHGE has been a direct beneficiary.
As shown, BHGE’s market cap has increased by over 20% since late 2016 but it has meant nothing for GE shares, as the company’s stock is down by almost the same percentage over this time period. Let’s think about this, GE still owns a majority stake in BHGE (62.5%) so the industrial conglomerate’s holding is now worth over $26B, or ~16% of GE’s current market cap, and the recent rise has had no bearing on GE’s stock price. BHGE alone is not enough to move the needle for GE, but a rising BHGE stock price will bode well for GE and its shareholders in 2018.
There are rumors that GE may look to spin-off BHGE at some point over the next few quarters (an approach that I prefer), as BHGE’a structure gives Mr. Flannery a lot of optionality, but I would not be surprised if GE retained the majority stake well into the 2020’s.
(2) Promising Policies
GE may not directly benefit from the tax reform bill, as many pundits believe to be the case (a thought that I do not necessarily agree with), but, in my opinion, the downstream impact of this business-friendly policy will have a significant impact on GE. For example, a JPMorgan analyst predicts that the new bill will be extremely positive for the companies of the S&P 500:
“The upcoming reduction of US corporate tax rates may be one of the biggest positive catalysts for US equities this cycle,” [Marko] Kolanovic, who serves as JPMorgan’s global head of quantitative and derivatives strategy, wrote in a client note. “We think that little is priced into the market and hence there is potential for market upside. Clients are not repositioning portfolios until they see the reform passed.”
The importance of tax reform to that call can be seen in the breakdown of JPMorgan’s earnings growth forecast for next year. The firm projects that half of earnings upside — or roughly $10 a share for the S&P 500 — will be due to a successful GOP tax bill.”
Joe Ciolli, JPMorgan’s quant guru says traders are waiting for tax cuts to unleash more stock market gains, Dec. 15, 2017
The tax bill has already started to have an impact, as analysts’ EPS estimates for 2018 have increased by 2.2% (to $150.12 from $146.83) from December 20, 2017 to January 11, 2018.
Full Disclosure: the 2018 bottom-up EPS estimate is an aggregation of the median 2018 EPS estimates for all of the companies in the index.
The 2.2% may not sound like much but it is the largest move over this specific period of time since FactSet began tracking this data in 1996.
Additionally, analysts are bullish on several sectors that GE operates in.
Let’s just remember that this industrial conglomerate operates in industries that are critical to the U.S. economy so GE will benefit as other industrial companies benefit from the tax bill, of course in my opinion.
And a Trump infrastructure bill in 2018 would simply be icing on the cake.
The main risk for investing in General Electric starts with management. There is no guarantee that Mr. Flannery is the right man to turn around a company that is widely viewed as a directionless, complex industrial conglomerate. Sentiment is the number one factor for GE shares being down by almost 50% in 2017 so shareholders are putting a lot of faith in a largely unproven leader, at least on this type of stage.
Another risk factor is the Power operating unit. Any additional downward pressure for this unit will not bode well for the consolidated results in 2018 or 2019. Management has big plans for Power over the next 24 months so investors should be paying close attention to the progress that is being made toward rightsizing and reshaping this unit for the future.
The market is flying at (or near) all-time highs and many stocks, including GE shares, have enjoyed a nice ride so far in 2018. I believe that there is a lot to like about GE as we head into 2018 and beyond, but this company’s new management team has a lot of prove over the next 12-18 months. Therefore, investors that think that they missed the boat when shares were trading at (or below) $18 per share will likely get another opportunity at some point in the first half of 2018.
However, looking out, I believe that this industrial conglomerate is attractively valued if you are willing (and able) to hold onto shares for at least the next three-to-five years. Investor sentiment is the main culprit for the poor performance for GE shares in 2017 and I believe that shares will rocket higher if Mr. Flannery is able to sell the market on his “plans” for this industrial conglomerate. That is why I, a person that plans to hold GE for many years, will not sell my GE shares now and try to get back in under $18 because timing the market is hard to do (or should I say impossible?). As such, investors with a long-term perspective should consider layering into a position at today’s levels because, in my opinion, GE shares have the potential to be trading significantly higher in the years ahead.
Disclaimer: This article is not a recommendation to buy or sell any stock mentioned. These are only my personal opinions. Every investor must do his/her own due diligence before making any investment decision.
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Disclosure: I am/we are long GE, BHGE, BRK.B.
I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.