General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt said Tuesday the giant conglomerate is undergoing a renewal after what has been one of the most difficult years in the company's 117-year history.
Immelt said in his annual outlook session for analysts in New York that GE is focusing on sectors such as energy and health care as it looks to its big industrial divisions to navigate out of the deep recession. It also plans to rely much less on its lending arm, GE Capital, for profits next year.
Yet despite the shift in strategy, GE's forecast for 2010 shows that the effects of the recent economic crisis will linger. Overall revenues and profits are expected to be largely flat next year at GE Capital and at the industrial divisions that make jet engines, power plant turbines and medical equipment.
Immelt portrayed 2010 as a transition year to growth in the future as its shifts from responding to the crumbling economy earlier this year to "playing offense" as global markets begin to slowly recover.
He said that the worst is behind GE Capital, the major source of investor worry this year, and that profits should rise again at the financial division after next year. Emerging markets like China, government stimulus programs and work repairing equipment that GE customers already own will be a source of future industrial earnings, he said. And GE is sitting on lots of cash from recent deals.
GE no longer provides specific earnings forecasts. Analysts surveyed by Thomson Reuters expect earnings this year of 99 cents per share and falling next year to 89 cents per share. But Immelt said by 2012, company profits should be much higher.
"We think we have positioned the company and we are ready for the next cycle of growth," he said.
GE recently announced plans to eventually sell off its NBC entertainment division to Comcast, a move that will help it free up cash that Immelt said it will use to expand. He did not cite specifics, but GE expects to have up to $26 billion in cash by the end of 2010.
The past year was one of dubious milestones for the Fairfield, Conn.-based GE.
The financial crisis and global recession was a double blow for the conglomerate as borrowers in areas like commercial real estate defaulted on loans and strapped customers pulled back on equipment orders.
To save cash, GE was forced to slash its dividend by 68 percent, the first cut since the Great Depression. It lost its top credit rating and issued most of its debt this year under a program that provides government backing. Share prices swooned in the first quarter, trading around $6 apiece before recovering somewhat in the summer and fall.
GE has made some significant changes to try to achieve stability during the turmoil.
Its new mantra for GE Capital is "safe and secure," meaning it is cutting the size of the unit that once generated 50 percent of all corporate profits and reducing its reliance on riskier investments. Losses at GE Capital are expected to peak next year, mostly on persistent problems with GE Capital's holdings and loans in commercial real estate. By 2011, profits will grow again at GE Capital, Immelt said.
It is also looking to products like energy-generating windmills, gas turbines for power plants, online medical records and energy saving equipment for electrical grids as a source of new industrial profits.
GE shares closed down 20 cents, or 1.25 percent, to close at $15.75 Tuesday.