Fixing GE 'is the challenge of a lifetime,' CEO says

General Electric took years to break. New CEO Larry Culp knows that he won't fix it overnight."We did...

Posted: Nov 13, 2018 11:46 AM
Updated: Nov 13, 2018 11:46 AM

General Electric took years to break. New CEO Larry Culp knows that he won't fix it overnight.

"We didn't get to where we are in six weeks so it's going to take a while," Culp told CNBC on Monday.

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Culp, the former boss of industrial manufacturer Danaher, was unexpectedly hired on October 1 as the first outsider-CEO in GE's 126-year history. He quickly moved to slash GE's cherished dividend to a penny, took a $22 billion accounting writedown and warned of more trouble ahead.

"I've got the energy and runway to do what it takes," said Culp, 55. "This is the challenge of a lifetime given where we find the company today."

The new CEO's blunt talk did little to inspire confidence on Wall Street. GE's (GE) shares dropped as much as 10% on Monday morning and briefly tumbled below $8 for the first time since March 2009. The stock is now down 54% this year.

GE's nosedive accelerated on Friday after JPMorgan published a brutal research report warning about serious problems with the company's debt-riddled balance sheet. The firm specifically called out heavy leverage at GE Capital, its banking arm.

JPMorgan analyst C. Stephen Tusa, Jr. said GE Capital is approaching a "tipping point" and warned that the "clock is ticking." Tusa, who correctly went negative on the stock in May 2016, estimates that GE Capital has up to $45 billion of "stranded" debt and liabilities.

'We do have a lot of leverage'

Asked about the state of GE Capital, Culp told CNBC that GE is moving to rapidly shrink the business. He also said that GE Capital has assets that "match" liabilities.

Culp vowed to move with a "sense of urgency" to repair GE's balance sheet by selling GE Healthcare, the majority stake in Baker Hughes (BHGE) and other businesses.

"We do have a lot of leverage," he said. "We all agree in that regard. We have a number of options to bring that leverage down over time."

Some analysts have urged GE to raise cash by selling stock, a move the company hasn't taken since Warren Buffett came to the rescue in 2008. Culp reiterated that GE has "no plans" for an equity raise, but left open the possibility of reconsidering if "conditions change."

The credit ratings companies are losing patience. Moody's Investors Services and S&P Global Ratings both cut GE's credit ratings last month because of concerns about elevated debt and shrinking cash flow. The downgrades forced GE to retreat from commercial paper, a form of cheap short-term borrowing relied on by businesses with strong balance sheets. GE is instead relying on more expensive bank financing.

Culp said that GE has only tapped $2 billion of the $40 billion of credit lines it has with banks.

GE Power 'close' to bottoming

GE's cash crunch has been caused in part by poorly timed deals. Under former CEO Jeff Immelt, GE doubled down on fossil fuels by spending $9.5 billion in 2015 to acquire Alstom's power business. That acquisition turned out to be a disaster, as evidenced by GE Power's need to take a $22 billion goodwill impairment charge last quarter.

Culp said that GE Power, which makes turbines for power plants, has successfully cut $700 million of costs and reduced its facility footprint by 20%. But he said that isn't enough given the pressures GE Power faces from the "energy transition" toward renewables.

Asked if GE Power had finally bottomed, Culp said: "We're getting close."

Culp expressed confidence in the ability of GE employees to overcome the enormous challenges currently facing the company.

"They don't scare easily," he said. "They are up for the fight."

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