Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Can GE survive much longer?

Jeff Immelt at GE just surprised the Markets with "better than expected" results. Is it all flim-flam? Porter Stansberry thinks so and his comments are below...

GE surprised Mr. Market late last week. Now... Mr. Market has the wisdom of a four-year old hopped up on cotton candy, so surprising him is about as difficult as replacing a light bulb. We offer you a more substantial (and sober) review of GE's earnings, below.

Here's a preview: We are less than impressed. In fact, we view the whole charade as sad and tawdry. It's flimflam on a grand scale, from no less than what used to be America's greatest corporation...

Let's begin with the much-ballyhooed dividend increase. GE says it will now pay out $0.12 per share every quarter instead of $0.10. While it is true that $0.12 is 20% more than $0.10, we doubt this arithmetic is very meaningful to bona-fide shareholders, who were collecting a quarterly $0.31 per share until early 2009.

The last time GE shareholders saw regular dividends around $0.12 per quarter was last century – 1999 to be specific. So, while you may regard this dividend increase as a significant step in the right direction, you might also see this extremely low payout level as the result of a "lost decade" at GE.

No matter how you view the news – as an exciting surprise or as a disheartening reality – there is one objective way to measure the dividend: by the yield it will produce for shareholders. Assuming GE continues to pay investors $0.12 per quarter, and assuming you buy the stock today for $16 (where it's trading now), you will earn a grand total of 3% per year on your capital.

GE's managers also want you to know its earnings were up last quarter – by 15%, to $3.3 billion. The results are so good, the company has promised to "extend" its share buyback program.

We've never seen that term used this way before. GE's managers clearly believe it's good news for shareholders. But what it really means is the company never bought the stock it promised to buy back previously. So the deadline for purchasing the stock had to be "extended." Imagine if your employer told you, "Great news, Bob, the company made more money than we thought it would, so we're going to extend your bonus payment – the one we didn't send you last year – to 2015."

Oh... one more thing. It's true that GE's reported earnings increased. But what the managers didn't mention was the company accomplished the increase despite a 4.3% decline in revenues. As any pizza chef can tell you, skimping on ingredients will only carry you for so long. Sooner or later, you gotta actually make more dough.

Finally... here's what GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt definitely didn't mention along with the promised 3% dividend and the "extended" buyback program: negative amortization mortgages.

When you think of GE, you probably think of its slogan: We Bring Good Things to Life. What GE actually does, however, is run a huge, highly leveraged global hedge fund that's almost totally unregulated. And the upcoming losses from this enormous financial operation will almost surely overwhelm the company's ability to finance its matching debtload. Let's run down the real numbers...

GE Capital has nearly $600 billion in assets. That's roughly 75% of all of GE's assets. When we say GE is really a giant, unregulated, global hedge fund, that's what we mean: Three-quarters of its assets are committed to the hedge fund, which it calls "GE Capital."

GE Capital does what most banks do... It borrows a ton of other people's money, invests it in ridiculously risky projects, and pays out bonuses to its managers, who retire before anyone realizes how much money they've lost.

GE Capital's nearly $600 billion in assets include $333 billion in receivables (think credit cards, car loans, and mortgages), $53 billion in property (think commercial real estate), and $81 billion in "other." We have no idea what "other" represents and would challenge anyone outside the company to explain it to us, as GE Capital's reporting is entirely indecipherable. Here's a good example... In one of its dozens of summary pages regarding its real estate investments, you will find this footnote: "Includes real estate investments related to Real Estate only."

We've never found a company that couldn't make its business easy to understand if it chose to do so. Warren Buffett, for example, runs a business that's similar in scale to GE. He writes the annual report personally, going over every key business unit in plain, clear English. GE's reporting is complex because it doesn't want you to know what's happened.

In any case... even assuming all $81 billion of "other" is money-good, we still believe the company is likely to declare bankruptcy because of investment losses within the next three years. Here's why: The company's total tangible net equity is only $40 billion. Thus, if GE were to lose 7% across all of its investments, its equity would be completely wiped out. In truth, whole book losses of even 2% or 3% would spook the capital markets enough that GE wouldn't be able to roll over its debts. And its near-term capital needs are massive: $227 billion comes due before the end of 2013.

We think its investment losses will total more than $50 billion over the next two to three years. Here's why...

GE Capital's total European exposure is $95 billion – that includes credit-card debt, auto loans, and mortgages. Any significant decline in the value of the euro would cause massive losses in these investments. And even if nothing bad happens to the euro currency (and we believe the euro must soon either be significantly devalued or significantly restructured), GE is still likely to lose an enormous amount of money on these loans. The reason why is buried in a footnote on page 21 of its second-quarter credit-quality report. It says:

"...At origination, we underwrite loans with an adjustable rate to the reset value. 81% of these loans are in our U.K. and France portfolios, which comprise mainly loans with interest-only payments and introductory below market rates..."

What that means is that GE Capital invested heavily in interest-only, variable-rate mortgages in the U.K. and France. Most of these loans haven't "reset" yet. And when they do, they have enormously high default rates.

Specifically, in the UK, 24.9% of GE's mortgages are more than 30 days delinquent. In Spain, almost 30% of GE's mortgages are 30 days or more delinquent. On average, of $50 billion in non-U.S. mortgages, more than 14% are delinquent. We estimate that at least 50% of these loans will end up defaulting.

According to Wells Fargo, defaults on these types of loans have been producing losses of between 60% and 70%. So... if you assume half of the mortgages default and you assume loss severity of 70%, GE should see losses on its non-U.S. mortgage portfolio of between $15 and $20 billion – not including losses on its $160 billion American mortgage portfolio... not including its commercial real estate losses... and not including its exposure to a euro currency crisis.

For taking on all of these risks, Immelt is offering you 3% a year. Plus a share buyback that's been "extended." Any takers?

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