(Bloomberg Opinion) -- General Electric Co. is learning the price of its credibility shortcomings.
Shares of the embattled industrial giant plunged more than 15% at one point on Thursday after Bernie Madoff whistle-blower Harry Markopolos published a damning critique of the company’s accounting. Markopolos is working on behalf of an unidentified hedge fund that is betting GE shares will decline. The company calls his claims “meritless,” and CEO Larry Culp deemed the report “market manipulation” in an e-mailed statement.
I read the report (all 170-plus pages of it), and my first instinct was that none of the allegations — which range from GE’s need to immediately bolster its long-term care insurance reserves with $18.5 billion in cash to looming writedowns on its stake in Baker Hughes to the generally confusing way the company represents its finances — are particularly new, at least not for those who have been paying close attention. The scale of the potential problems is bigger than any others have estimated, and the person making the claims has a track record of exposing fraud, having warned the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission about Madoff’s Ponzi scheme years before it became public. But the line from the report that stood out to me the most was this one: “Who’s being transparent — them or us?”
The market is giving its verdict. A series of broken promises, presentation “errors” that later have to be corrected, a continuing tendency to micromanage Wall Street expectations to orchestrate optical “beats” and an unwillingness to do away with heavily engineered earnings adjustments have cost GE dearly in the credibility department. Regardless of the truth of Markopolos’s report — and again, there’s plenty to debate there — GE has surrendered the high ground in its defense.
Just this week, Steve Winoker, GE’s head of investor relations, issued an update on the company’s power unit and sought to clarify “confusion” about the number of 7F gas turbines it has installed. GE says it has 900 units in service, which is up relative to the year-end total of 2017 and 2018. But marketing materials from those years put GE’s 7F installed base at more than 1,100 units. Winoker says those materials lumped other types of units into the 7F tally. But there was really no room for that kind of interpretation in the wording of the brochure. This disclosure follows outgoing CFO Jamie Miller’s acknowledgment in May of the “confusion” created when she referenced an industry data firm’s calculation of power-equipment orders on an earnings call in a way that made GE’s business appear more robust than it was. At the Paris Air Show in June, in response to a question from JPMorgan Chase & Co. analyst Steve Tusa, Jean Lydon-Rodgers, CEO of GE Aviation’s services arm, said the company’s CF34 and CF6 engines account for “slightly less” than half of repair shop visits, raising questions about how exposed that business may be to a drop in profitability once those older models are replaced. In a follow-up e-mail to investors, Winoker clarified the number is actually just less than a third.
Maybe these are all inadvertent errors. But for a company that clearly needs to do more to bolster its transparency and credibility, it’s a troubling fact pattern and puts it on the back foot when countering Markopolos’s allegations.
The primary focus of Markopolos’s analysis is GE’s long-term care insurance business, which he argues needs an immediate $18.5 billion cash influx with a $10.5 billion non-cash GAAP charge looming over the next few years because of tougher accounting rules. That’s on top of the $15 billion reserve shortfall GE disclosed in January 2018. GE’s argument that insurance reserves are “well-supported for our portfolio characteristics” runs up against the contrast between what appears to be a deeply researched, numbers-heavy analysis by Markopolos and its own opaque commentary and financial presentations.
Is Markopolos’s estimate correct? He bases it off an analysis of loss ratios and reserves for comparable policies at insurers such as Prudential Financial Inc. and Unum Group. His numbers seem dire, but GE itself warned in its annual filing that a more sober outlook for investment yields and the rate at which insurance claimants get healthier could force the company to put up additional pretax GAAP reserves, with some scenarios demanding a $12 billion increase. Estimating the appropriate reserve amount is a careful dance of assumptions of various puts and takes, and you’d need a crystal ball to accurately predict what’s required here. But the underlying point is that GE isn’t being nearly as conservative as it should be with this business, especially given looming accounting rule changes. I made that argument in February.
He also argues that GE shouldn’t consolidate the Baker Hughes results in its numbers and that it’s avoiding a writedown on that deal. I’m less troubled by this because GE has disclosed the size of the potential impairment once its stake in Baker Hughes drops below 50%, and it does clearly break out the earnings and cash flow contribution from the business. What could end up being most problematic for GE is Markopolos’s brief allusion to the disconnect between the aviation unit’s $4.2 billion in 2018 free cash flow and engine partner Safran SA’s disclosure that it loses money on each Leap engine produced and won’t recover cost of goods sold until the end of the decade at best. The true underlying financials of that business have been a fixation for critics who contend it’s not as solid as GE makes it out to be.
Markopolos obviously has a vested interest in pushing down GE’s share price. But the company would be wise to focus less on his motivations and more on refuting the specifics of his claims with hard numbers of its own. That would go a long way toward rebuilding investors’ trust.
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Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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