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5 Companies That Sold the Most to Survive

Antoine Gara
Thursday, 17 Nov 2011 | 1:08 PM ET

Earlier this week TheStreet wrote about the companies that made crisis-time acquisitions leading to growth opportunities, if they aren't already paying dividends.

But some companies haven't had the luxury to go shopping since the financial crisis and instead have been using ventures and business line fire sales to stabilize bleeding operations.

At first glance, it looks as if the Standard & Poor's 500 Index has barely changed since the Friday before Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, but many of the biggest sectors such as financials, energy and autos have been completely upended by the turmoil in markets.

Plummeting sales, consumer confidence and, most critically, cash turned some companies into desperate sellers as they focused others on growth opportunities.

While some giants including Wachovia, Merrill Lynch, General Motors , CIT Group and recently MF Global either went bankrupt or fell into the arms of a last-ditch buyer, others used a flurry of asset sales and piles of government money to weather the Great Recession.

TheStreet did a screen for the biggest sellers since the crisis and picked a few survivors, using Bloomberg data.

To be seen is whether disposals will be a lost opportunity for years to come, or if the sales create a blank slate that will set the stage for future growth.

We found the five most frequent sellers and offer our thoughts on what it means for their prospects.

American International Group

It should come as no surprise the company that gave birth to the saying "too big to fail" sold billions in assets and took even more billions in bailout money for last minute cash to survive the crisis.

Overall, AIG did 13 asset sales to raise $28.3 billion and sold $25 billion in initial public offerings for much needed cash.

The sales supplemented $182 billion in bailout funds the insurance giant needed after its financial products unit became the guarantor to a significant portion of the junk that Wall Street created prior to the crisis.

As a result of the bailout, the Treasury Department took a 92 percent stake in the company.

In March 2010, the insurance giant sold its Alico insurance unit for nearly $15 billion to Metlife and also announced its biggest crisis sale prospect in a $35 billion deal to unload its Asian insurance unit AIA Group to Britain's Prudential PLC . The latter deal was later quashed as a result of defections among AIA's senior ranks and price negotiations that made the takeover untenable.

After the sale failure, AIG then did a public offering of $17.8 billion worth of AIA shares in a Hong Kong IPO.

In May, AIG sold $8.7 billion worth of stock in its insurance unit in one of the biggest post-crisis IPOs that valued shares at $29. The share sale reduced the government's stake in the company to 77 percent. Nevertheless, even after the IPO, the government retained 1.5 billion AIG shares.

In September 2011, AIG's International Lease Finance Corporation, its aircraft lease division, filed a $100 million IPO.

Even if the IPO were a startling success, it still wouldn't change the fact that the insurer, which lost nearly $4 billion in its most recent quarter and $99 billion in 2008, still owes the U.S. Treasury nearly $50 billion.

Clearly, a lot more selling is in store for AIG.

General Electric

In 2008, the industrial conglomerate General Electric surprised many when, as a result of the freezing in commercial paper markets, it needed to convert to a bank holding company and take a $139 billion debt backing by the Federal Deposit Insurance Company.

Many familiar with GE for its steady returns and epic strings of profitability found it crazy that the world's largest engineering company would qualify as a bank and need debt guarantees from the government.

However, a reliance on the $60 billion-plus revenue-earning GE Capital division and the short-term funds needed to run it put GE into crisis as credit markets froze after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

In October 2008, Warren Buffett took a $3 billion warrant in General Electric, which inspired enough confidence in the company for it to sell an additional $12 billion worth of stock to raise much needed capital. The investment was one of Buffett's big investments in America in a time of crisis.

General Electric also struck a host of deals to bring in cash and manage its GE Capital business.

In December 2009, General Electric sold a controlling interest in its NBC Universal division, parent of CNBC, to Comcast for $13.75 billion.

While the deal netted General Electric some much-needed cash and allowed it to avoid a multibillion-dollar buyback of NBC from Vivendi, it ceded control of GE's fourth-largest and most glamorous business line.

GE Capital also cut some of its sprawling overseas financial businesses including a 20 percent stake in Istanbul-based Turkiye Garanti Bankasi to Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria for over $3.7 billion and a Central American bank to Colombia's Grupo Aval for $1.9 billion in the biggest-ever acquisition for a Colombia company.

Overall, GE sold $23.5 billion worth of businesses through the crisis.

In part as a result of the divestitures, GE's earnings have fallen from $180 billion in sales and $20 billion in profits before the crisis to $150 billion and $11.6 billion in revenue and profits respectively.

Nevertheless, the company's cash has increased to a record $91.4 billion in its most recent quarter, a more than ten-fold increase from 2005 levels, and it has cut short-term liabilities below $200 billion.

The sales and balance sheet improvements have allowed GE to strike focused deals to bolster its engineering specialty.

In October 2010, GE bought oil equipment maker Dresser for $3 billion. In 2011, GE also bought wind turbine maker Converteam for $3.2 billion, signaling that as it scales back its risky finance activities, GE will refocus on its industrial engineering dominance.

It may be a smart play. While shares of the largest banks in the U.S including Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Citigroup are down at last 20 percent this year, GE's shares haven't suffered as much, falling 12 percent.

Citigroup

One of the largest Troubled Asset Relief Program and Treasury bailout recipients during the financial crisis, Citigroup took over $45 billion in government funds in exchange for preferred shares to survive.

The company, which saw its stock fall below the price of a McDonald's hamburger, has spent the last three years selling assets to raise much-needed capital.

In 2008, Citigroup created CitiHoldings to unwind or sell $850 billion in "non-core" assets to pay back its government ownership, which peaked at nearly 40 percent, and repair its balance sheet. As a result, Citigroup earnings are being dictated by what we've called an ever-lightening Sisyphean rock in CitiHoldings.

In 2009, just after the split between Citi and CitiHoldings took effect, asset sales began at a frenetic pace.

That January, Citi ceded its ownership of brokerage Smith Barney to Morgan Stanley in a joint venture that formed the world's largest brokerage and netted Citi almost $3 billion in much needed cash.

Months later, Citi sold its Japanese brokerage Nikko Cordial to Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, the third-largest bank in Japan, for nearly $8 billion and it got another $2 billion in excess cash.

Citi kept one Asian brokerage unit, Nikko Asset Management, which it later sold to Sumitomo for roughly $1.25 billion, ending an ambitious foray into Asia.

In 2010, the sales kept on humming at CitiHoldings; during the year Citi reduced its assets by over $140 billion, a reduction of 28 percent.

Among the most publicized sales was a selling of shares in its insurance unit Primerica to private equity fund Warburg Pincus, which later were sold in an IPO.

That sale is a further push away from Citi's "financial supermarket" business model where anything money could be done under the roof of Citigroup.

Last year, the company also started selling some of its bundles of securities tied to real estate and credit card debt the bank had issued.

In September 2010, Citi sold its stake in Student Loan Corp to Discover Financial for $600 million and another $3.5 billion in commercial real estate debt to JPMorgan Chase .

Earlier in November, Citigroup sold music titan EMI in two separate pieces for $4.1 billion after seizing the company from private equity firm Terra Firma earlier in the year. With the EMI sales, Citigroup's crisis sales are nearing $20 billion in total, but company management has cautioned investors against expecting many more sales.

Instead, the company will let its CitiHoldings assets mature over years, if not decades. Meanwhile, the stock flounders.

Chesapeake Energy

Of any oil and gas company, Chesapeake Energy has had the most eventful time dealing with the crisis.

The company, which has taken stakes in an array of gas exploration partnerships, has seen its shares plummet and then rocket back during the crisis as it unloaded billions in asset sales.

Overall, Chesapeake Energy cut 13 sales to raise nearly $14 billion of much needed cash to survive volatile earnings that have swayed between a $5 billion-plus loss in 2009 and a near $2 billion profit in 2010.

Meanwhile, the company's only made just one minor purchase, an April 2011 buy of Bronco Drilling for $311 million.

Earnings sways as a result of volatile gas selling prices, a huge overhang of debt, a shortage of cash and a sprawl of energy assets at the second-largest U.S. gas producer has caused Chesapeake shares to dip into the single digits at different points in the crisis.

To shore up its balance sheet, Chesapeake has relied on foreign buyers.

The company sold its Fayetteville shale assets to Australia's BHP for $4.75 billion, Barnett shale assets to France's Total for $2.25 billion, Marcellus shale assets to Norway's Statoil for $1.25 billion and Eagle Ford shale assets to China's CNOOC for another $1.08 billion, among others.

The hard work in shale sales has paid off for Chesapeake in the short term, however. Its shares have risen over 14 percent from this time last year, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 have risen nearly 5 percent.

Devon Energy

After losing more than $2 billion in 2008 and 2009, Devon Energy has used crisis asset sales to sharpen its focus on onshore oil and gas prospects, while spinning riskier deepwater oil drilling assets literally months before the devastating BP Macondo oil spill.

As a result, Devon has been able to double its cash from pre-crisis levels, cut its debt and consolidate its most strategic oil and gas assets.

In March 2010, Devon Energy sold some of its deepwater portfolio in the Gulf of Mexico to BP for $7 billion just over a month before the British oil giant had a well blowout that led to the worst man made environmental catastrophe in U.S. history.

Previous to the blowout, Devon also sold billions more of Gulf of Mexico deepwater assets to Maersk and to Apache .

The sales turned out to be fortunate as companies with a deepwater focus saw their shares fall precipitously in the aftermath of the BP spill.

While, Devon made eleven divestitures during the crisis and made no acquisitions that drew in over $10 billion, it’s now found the cash to develop a balance of onshore drilling prospects. Currently, Devon counts on onshore gas production for over 66 percent of revenue and oils for another 30 percent.

In 2010, Devon earned its first profit since the recession taking in $4.5 billion in net earnings. Nine months into 2011, the company's already eclipsed its 2010 profit.

Shares, however have fallen 14 percent year-to-date as a result of falling commodity prices. In April, Devon Energy's stock rose to a post-crisis high of $93.56, but it has fallen by one-third since.

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Disclosures:

TheStreet's editorial policy prohibits staff editors, reporters and analysts from holding positions in any individual stocks.

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