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With Alstom deal settled, focus on GE turns to margins, orders

The logo of U.S. conglomerate General Electric is pictured at the company's site in Belfort, June 23, 2014. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

By Lewis Krauskopf

NEW YORK (Reuters) - General Electric Co's (GE.N) second-quarter earnings report next Friday comes soon after it prevailed in a two-month fight to acquire the power assets of France's Alstom (ALSO.PA).

Yet the $16.9 billion transaction, the U.S. conglomerate's biggest-ever, barely caused a ripple in GE's share price.

Since word of GE's desire for Alstom leaked in late April, sparking initial resistance from the French government and a bid from rival industrial giants, GE's stock price has slipped 1 percent. By comparison, the Dow Jones industrial index (.DJI) is up 2 percent and the S&P 500 index (.SPX) up 4 percent.

After a strong 2013, GE shares are down more than 6 percent this year, lagging industrial peers and the broader market.

GE is aiming to simplify through divestitures and restructuring, which could boost its valuation in line with U.S. industrial peers. According to a Barclays analysis this week, GE shares trade at about 13.3 times 2015 earnings estimates, a discount to multi-industry rivals Honeywell International Inc (HON.N) and 3M Co (MMM.N), which trade at 15.3 and 17.4 times earnings, respectively.

"I think they’re going to put a lot of that behind them," said Jack Murphy, portfolio manager with Levin Capital Strategies, which owns roughly 10 million GE shares.

While analysts likely will seek details about the Alstom deal's financial benefits, how much progress GE shows toward long-term profitability and cost-cutting goals could hold more sway over the shares.

Investors want GE to post another quarter of strong industrial revenue growth, continue to cut costs to expand its 15.3 percent industrial profit margin, and rebound from a sluggish equipment order book earlier this year.

Like other shareholders, Murphy takes comfort in GE's 3.3 percent dividend yield, which tops many U.S. peers'.

Many shareholders favor Chief Executive Jeff Immelt's moves to slim GE's finance activities so that, by 2016, three-quarters of earnings come from jet engines, oil and gas equipment and other industrial businesses, up from 55 percent last year.

Key to those aims is GE's plan to spin off its North American retail finance business. GE has said a public offering of about 20 percent will occur this quarter, with plans for a full separation next year.

"I want to see if that is on schedule," said Michael Kon, senior analyst with investment advisory firm Golub Group, which holds about 1 million GE shares. "I think their competitive advantages in the finance space are much weaker than in a lot of their industrial businesses."

The Alstom deal is set to expand GE's global base of energy turbines, tilting the company further toward its industrial businesses.

With the acquisition expected to close next year, "this deal isn't moving the needle in 2014," said Morningstar analyst Daniel Holland.

(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Alwyn Scott and Nick Zieminski)