Porter Stansberry writes:
GE says it "brings good things to life," but in fact, over the decade, it has mostly been about bringing good debt to life. For many, many years, GE relied on its triple-A credit rating to borrow money cheaply in the 30-day commercial paper market and then lend it out at a much higher rate, via things like credit-card receivables. These kinds of financial strategies worked well during the debt-financed boom of 1995-2008. They don't work anymore. In fact, without a government guarantee backing its debts, GE would have already gone bankrupt.
Here are the core facts: GE owes its creditors $518 billion. That is not a misprint. It owns tangible net assets of only $17 billion. Thus, on a tangible basis, it is currently leveraged by more than 30-to-1. That's unheard of for a major industrial company. A 3.3% decline in the value of its asset base would wipe out all of its tangible equity. But here's the real problem. Last quarter, the company produced $2 million in operating income. Again, that's not a misprint. On $17 billion in assets, the company earned only $2 million. So... what will happen to GE if (or when) the free market sets its borrowing costs?
GE spent $4.3 billion on interest in the last quarter – thanks to the government's guarantee. So on an annualized basis, GE is now spending roughly $17 billion to service its $500 billion in debt. That's an annualized interest rate of 3.3%. This is not sustainable. Sooner or later, GE is going to have to pay a market interest rate.
Currently, the yield on high-yield corporate debt is around 10%. GE is now rated two slots above "junk" by Egan Jones, the only reliable ratings agency. So let's assume GM could still qualify as an investment-grade credit – which is a generous assumption. GM would pay something like 8% on its debt in a free market. That would cost more than $41 billion a year. Last year, GE earned $45 billion before interest and taxes – in total. It spent $33 billion of these profits on capital expenditures and necessary investments – expenses required to keep the business going. That left it with about $12 billion in what we call "owner earnings." That's not nearly enough money to pay the interest on its debts – whether they're backed by the government or not.
Imagine if the interest on your mortgage consumed 91% of your pre-tax earnings. Could you possibly avoid bankruptcy? No way, right? But... there's a big difference between owing the bank a few hundred grand and owing folks more than $500 billion. Last year, even though GE couldn't actually afford its debts and required a government bailout, it spent $12.4 billion on dividends for common stock holders. That's 20% more than it spent on dividends in 2006! (GE finally cut its dividend by 70% in February. It will be eliminated soon, I promise. Its creditors will finally wake up and demand it.)
Today the stock market values GE at $171 billion. In fact, the common stock – every single share – is not worth one penny. Plan accordingly.
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