GE shares crater as breakup won't be a magic bullet for investors

Key Points
  • General Electric shares shed another 4 percent in trading Wednesday to just over $17.
  • Wall Street is scrambling to evaluate the standalone value of GE's businesses.
  • J.P. Morgan says it's increasingly difficult to justify its $16 price target.
  • Industrial analyst Brian Langenberg says GE is "going in the direction" of selling its Baker Hughes stake.
GE to examine ownership structure
GE to examine ownership structure

General Electric is likely breaking up its businesses as early as this spring, and Wall Street is scrambling to evaluate which parts of the company have the legs to stand alone.

Meanwhile, the sky continues to fall for GE, and its value is going with it. Shares dropped 4 percent on Wednesday to just above $17, after a 3 percent slide the day before. The company's stock is the worst performer on the Dow Jones industrial average over the last year, declining more than 40 percent, according to FactSet.

The latest sell-off was set into motion when the company announced worse-than-expected results Tuesday after a review of its GE Capital insurance portfolio. The review found GE will take a $6.2 billion after-tax charge for the fourth quarter of 2017, and the company expects to contribute $15 billion over the next seven years to shore up the portfolio's reserves.

Reflecting on the news, GE CEO John Flannery said the company's "underlying strengths and value" are being "suppressed" in its current structure.

"As a result, we are looking aggressively at the best structure or structures for our portfolio to maximize the potential of our businesses, continue to deliver outstanding products and services to our customers, enhance our ability to provide attractive opportunities for our employees, while maximizing value for our shareholders," he said.

But the potential breakup of the company has investors reflecting on what the pieces are worth.

J.P. Morgan analysts wrote in a note Wednesday that it is becomingly increasingly difficult to justify the firm's $16 price target on the stock — which is already 11 percent below the $18.12 per share it closed at on Tuesday.

"This to us is not about offensive value creation and more an acknowledgement that the problems preclude the company from moving forward as previously planned, even a few months ago," J.P. Morgan said.

The firm says there may be "many dis-synergies not incorporated" in its analysis of GE. Those unknown risks may justify a further degraded value, between $12 and $16 per share. That range falls in line with what Cowen analyst Gautam Khanna wrote in a November note, saying a sum-of-the-parts analysis of GE suggests its breakup valuation is in the range of $11 to $15 per share.

"There is no quick fix for GE and the stock remains biased to the downside," Khanna said at the time.

Can General Electric make a breakup work financially?
Can General Electric make a breakup work financially?

Industrial analyst Brian Langenberg told CNBC Tuesday "a breakup is not a bad idea," saying it appears GE is "going in the direction" of selling its 62 percent stake in Baker Hughes. Acquired by GE in October 2016, Baker Hughes is one of the world's largest oil field services companies.

"The question is: Do you give opportunity for others to buy valuable parts, or time to let it operate better?" Langenberg said.

Vertical Research Partners founder Jeffrey Sprague thinks the sale of Baker Hughes is more likely than a full-scale breakup, according to a note sent to investors on Tuesday.

"We think these comments point more towards the eventual split-off (exchange offer) of [Baker Hughes] and actions such as a potential IPO of part of [GE Capital Aviation Services]," Sprague wrote. In any breakup, GE will need to balance its liabilities, he explained.

"Managing GE's numerous liabilities also becomes more difficult the smaller the company(s) becomes," Sprague wrote.

After GE announced it was cutting its dividend and restructuring its units in November, Langenberg said it would take CEO John Flannery five years to turn the company around.

"[Today the company has] a depressed valuation and marquee assets like aviation and healthcare," Langenberg said.

Langenberg said GE's healthcare and aviation units are strong businesses, unlike its "botched" power business.

"The power business, when they stop screwing it up, would have more value. It has a lot of potential value," Langenberg added.

Langenberg's firm has a buy rating on GE's stock, with a $25 price target.