GE Selling Bulb Business, But Don’t Expect a Breakup

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GE Selling Bulb Business, But Don't Expect a Breakup
GE Selling Bulb Business, But Don't Expect a Breakup

General Electric Co. (GE) may sell additional businesses as investor Trian Partners pressures CEO Jeffrey Immelt to meet aggressive performance targets, but there’s little chance the 127-year-old American icon will break itself up the way another of the activist’s manufacturing holdings did.

Pentair Plc — the London-based manufacturer at which Trian became one of the largest investors in mid-2015, just months before acquiring a stake in GE — decided in May to split its largest businesses into two separate companies.

The breakup was announced less than a year after CEO Randall Hogan sold a valves and controls unit hurt by low oil prices for $3.2 billion, and Trian chief investment officer Ed Garden has applauded Hogan’s willingness to shrink his company to bolster value.

While the activist investor declined to say whether it might pursue such a strategy at GE, where it holds a 0.9% stake valued at about $1.9 billion, a Deutsche Bank analyst said a breakup would face significant obstacles — from likely opposition by the board to the potential loss of the manufacturer’s tax rate in the mid- to low teens.

“We view the chances that GE busts up to be almost nil,” John Inch, a New York-based analyst with the bank, said in a note to clients last week. That doesn’t mean Trian won’t exact meaningful changes at GE, which Immelt has spent years streamlining by exiting broadcast television, shedding most of its finance business and building digital manufacturing capabilities.

The company said June 8 it has begun talking with prospective buyers for its lighting business, the strongest connection to founder Thomas Edison, who formed the company as a maker of incandescent bulbs in the late 1800s.

It’s also selling the water and industrial solutions businesses, and in March, Immelt struck a deal with Trian under which the manufacturer will target industrial operating profit of $17.2 billion this year while cutting operating costs by $1 billion each this year and next.

Achieving the goals would mean a 20% bump in bonuses for Immelt and his senior management team; failure would result in a cut of the same amount, according to a regulatory filing. Trian wouldn’t say whether it would push for changes beyond the bonus cuts or whether it stands by its statement earlier this year that there’s a path for GE earn as much as $2.33 a share in 2018.

That would be higher than the company’s own forecast of as much as $2, which Immelt has since said would be “at the high end,” given persistently low prices in resource markets such as oil that curbs GE’s energy equipment sales.

While it’s not clear how Trian arrived at its $2.33 estimate, many investors don’t see even $2 as realistic, Nick Heymann, an analyst with William Blair, said in a telephone interview. The number would be 34% higher than last year.

“We can get to $1.90,” Heymann said. “To be able to get to $2, you needed some external factors such as tax reform,” which might buoy earnings by 8 to 13 cents a share, he said.

“It’s all about confidence right now,” the analyst added. “It’s really about getting people to believe that the expectations going forward are realistic and will be achieved. If that’s the case, then we’re likely to see a sea change in sentiment, and the stock, which is down 11% to 12% year-to-date, would be likely to respond very notably.”

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