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New General Electric CEO May Be Just the Catalyst GE Stock Needs

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It has been more than a week since General Electric (NYSE:GE) announced that it had replaced its now-former CEO, John Flannery. GE stock surged nearly 20% in the wake of the announcement before retreating with the rest of the market The dust has yet to fully settle, though, as investors continue weighing the upside of a highly-motivated, new CEO against the plausible reality that fixing GE still won’t be quick, easy or pretty.

Nevertheless, it is increasingly clear what new CEO Larry Culp will have to do.

The $64,000 question is, can he do it? Most onlookers think that the struggling industrial giant may be in better hands now than it was a week ago, but most of those observers also realize that GE stock is still facing enormous (and potentially expensive) problems.

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New Boss, Old Problems

Larry Culp is a well-respected name inside and outside of industrial circles. He took the helm of Danaher (NYSE:DHR) back in 2001, and before stepping down in 2014 had managed to quintuple the company’s revenues and market cap. His acumen isn’t in question.

Culp also brings something to the table no other GE chief ever has in our lifetimes… a fresh perspective. That is, he’s the first CEO of General Electric who wasn’t promoted from within in a century.

The conglomerate does have some problems, however, that not even Jack Welch could readily or easily fix. Moody’s Investors Service laid them out quite nicely, in preparation for a possible downgrade of an already-shaky credit rating, saying the current review “could include measures to address the very substantial pension deficit, GE’s $4.2 billion annual dividend, improving working capital or investing efficiency.” Moody’s added that, “The potential for disruption, or acceleration, of efficiency programs already underway with another change at (the) senior management level will be assessed.”

Culp’s earliest maneuvers may also include more write-downs.

Last Monday’s announcement of Flannery’s ouster was paired with news that GE would take a $23 billion accounting charge to reflect the ongoing struggles of its power division. But it was telling that CNBC market commentator Jim Cramer said “He’s free to take all the charges GE needs and, of course, he can cut the dividend and maybe he can do a hundred-million-share secondary offering to help fix the balance sheet.”

In the meantime, Barclays analyst Julian Mitchell cautioned owners of GE stock that, “While we do not yet know the magnitude of the 2018 guidance cuts, talking to investors we believe they are broadly braced for EPS of 75 cents for 2018, FCF (free cash flow) of 50 cents, and a dividend cut of 75%-plus.”

Analysts’ current consensus estimate of the company’s 2018 EPS is 92 cents.

Incentives Are Aligned

Past and future problems aside, General Electric’s Board of Directors has given Culp an incentive plan that will even make Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Tim Cook — last year’s highest-paid CEO in the world, when factoring in stock grants — a little green with envy.

Culp’s base pay is relatively modest. General Electric will pay Culp $2.5 million per year, but he will also qualify for a bonus of $3.75 million and equity awards of up to $15 million per year. If the General Electric stock price rises considerably, though, Culp will profit much more handsomely. A 50% improvement in the value of GE stock by the third quarter of 2022 could be worth around $47 million to him, while a 150% improvement in the value of General Electric stock could translate into a $300 million payday for Culp.

For the first time in a long time, the company’s chief and its shareholders are very much on the same page and in the same boat. According to Cramer, “That is a contract that, if you’re performance-oriented, it’s the best performance-oriented contract I’ve ever seen. And I don’t think anyone (has) seen a better one.”

Bottom Line for GE Stock

The question remains, however: Is Culp, or anyone else, going to be able to turn General Electric around and spark a resurgence of General Electric stock? The answer to the question is a resounding “maybe,” and leans towards “probably.”

General Electric has a great deal going for it, not the least of which is a recognizable and respected name. Its healthcare and aviation businesses are doing well, and although its power and energy-related units require a great deal of work, that work is doable. More write-downs may be on the radar, however, as the depths of the company’s pre-Flannery missteps are still being disclosed.

The market may have already priced the worst-case scenario, and more, into GE stock price, though. As Barclays’ Mitchell noted, the current market valuation of General Electric stock reflects the combined value of its aviation and healthcare units. Investors are essentially getting its power, renewables, lighting, transportation and even its stake in the Baker Hughes (NYSE:BHGE) venture, struggling as they may be, for free. Investors could certainly make far crazier bets.

More than anything though, Culp’s arrival offers something shareholders haven’t had or seen in a long, long time… hope. That alone makes GE stock worth a look.

As of this writing, James Brumley did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities. You can follow him on Twitter, at @jbrumley.

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