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GE defends dividend after JPMorgan predicts payout cut is 'increasingly likely'

  • General Electric shares could fall 14 percent and a dividend cut is "increasingly likely," JPMorgan analyst Stephen Tusa Jr. says.
  • "The dividend remains a top priority," GE said in a statement to CNBC on the report.
  • Tusa also says the early departures of key executives is a "negative" signal.

JPMorgan isn't buying the shake-up at General Electric.

Analyst Stephen Tusa Jr. said in a Wednesday note that he sees a dividend cut as "increasingly likely" and lowered his price target on the stock by $2 to $20, more than 14 percent below Tuesday's close.

Just like the departure of former GE Power CEO Steve Bolze earlier this year, "we view the early exits of key execs as a signal that is negative," Tusa wrote. "With our most recent cut to earnings, some of which is cash, and updated thoughts on the markets, we now see a dividend cut, or 'adjustment,' as it is likely termed, as increasingly likely."

"The dividend remains a top priority," GE spokeswoman Deirdre Latour said in a statement to CNBC in response to the JPMorgan report.

GE shares fell more than 1 percent Wednesday to their lowest since August 2015. The stock closed 1.2 percent lower at $23.07 a share, its lowest close since Sept. 3, 2013.

Tusa has an underweight rating on the stock. He said Wednesday on CNBC's "Halftime Report" that GE shares would probably have to fall "down to the teens comfortably" before working their way back up to $20 or the low $20s.

GE unexpectedly announced Friday that its chief financial officer, Jeffrey S. Bornstein, will leave the company on Dec. 31, when two other vice chairs will also retire. The news follows former CEO Jeffrey Immelt's earlier-than-expected retirement as director and chairman of GE's board of directors on Oct. 2.

Then GE announced on Monday that the board elected Ed Garden, founding partner and chief investment officer of activist hedge fund Trian Partners, to the board of the industrial conglomerate. The company's shares fell 3.9 percent that day in their worst daily decline since June 2016.

The changes come just months after John Flannery took over as CEO in June. Trian's CEO, Nelson Peltz, said on CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" Tuesday that Flannery told Garden "everything is on the table."

"While many view any change at GE as a positive, because apparently it was really bad for the 15 years during which many sell side Bulls were saying how good it was, we don't think appointing an activist who is stuck changes much," JPMorgan's Tusa said. "In our view, an activist heightens the risk that GE tries for a quick fix, like it has done in the past."

"On this front, the historical approach from Trian has been break ups," Tusa said. "While investors can debate high level multiples at length, what's absent is a rigorous discussion addressing core business trends and here not even a brilliant activist can solve utility business model issues, or make a gas turbine with more proven efficiency than competition."

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