January 31, 2019 / 12:08 PM / 3 months ago

UPDATE 7-General Electric's modest gains, candor spark 'relief rally'

(Adds detail, updates share price)

By Alwyn Scott and Rachit Vats

Jan 31 (Reuters) - General Electric Co beat estimates for sales and cash flow in the fourth quarter and said on Thursday it had reached a tentative deal to settle a subprime mortgage case with U.S. regulators, sending its shares sharply higher.

GE stock briefly soared as much as 18 percent as profits and sales rose in its aviation, healthcare and oil-and-gas businesses, offsetting $1 billion in cumulative losses at its power and capital units. GE's bond prices also rose sharply. In afternoon trading, the stock was up about 12 percent at $10.22.

The 2018 results cap one of GE's worst years, starting with an $11 billion charge and disclosure of accounting investigations by U.S. regulators, and ending with fears about GE's liquidity and even the continued existence of what once was America's most famous and valuable company. Even with Thursday's gains, GE shares are down 65 percent over the past two years.

Many analysts and investors had braced for disappointing results and were relieved that new Chief Executive Larry Culp was able to show some improvement while being blunt about bad news. Culp offered only a scant forecast, however, delaying details for a meeting to be scheduled soon.

Still, Culp set targets that matched what analysts and investors have been requesting: lifting GE's triple-B credit rating to single-A quality, reducing industrial debt to less than 2.5 times operating income, and even restoring the dividend. Culp did not set a time frame for those goals.

GE also announced a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over its subprime mortgage practices before the 2008 financial crisis. GE will pay a $1.5 billion civil penalty, money it has already set aside.

Culp ruled out selling GE's $40-billion aircraft leasing unit, quelling concerns that jettisoning the profitable unit would sink GE Capital. He also said GE is "reviewing every single project and contract" in its power unit.

Investors seemed euphoric, if a little myopic. "The only relevant data in the quarterly numbers is that actual sales and the free cash flow from the industrials business were better than expected," William Blair analyst Nicholas Heymann said.

GE's lengthy presentation contained numerous warnings and unknowns. Cash is likely to decline in 2019, but GE would not say by how much; GE is still in "early innings" of turning around its power business, where revenue will fall again in 2019; and GE will provide detail about its toxic long-term care insurance liabilities in February. It took a $65-million charge for insurance in the latest quarter, compared with a $6.2 billion charge and $15 billion in provisions a year ago.

It also did not provide more detail on ongoing regulatory investigations of its accounting for long-term care policies and power-plant services contracts.

BETTER THAN EXPECTED RESULTS

"The results are better than expected because expectations were so low," said Erik Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business. "The company still faces the huge challenges of managing its mountain of debt and restoring investor confidence in the accuracy of its numbers."

But some said Culp's new candor and an investor relations chief plucked from Wall Street had gone a long way to restoring credibility after years of happy talk, earnings landmines and a class-action lawsuit that alleges accounting fraud.

"Power is still in free-fall," said Scott Davis, analyst at Melius Research, in a note. But GE is providing "an honest assessment of the problems and (a) realistic plan to fix them ... So the relief rally is explainable."

The results showed GE had strengthened its cash position and chipped away $21 billion from its massive debt, two issues that hit the stock in tumultuous 2018.

The 127-year-old conglomerate was booted from the Dow Jones Industrial Average, had its credit ratings cut to three notches above junk, slashed its quarterly dividend to a penny, restated earnings for the prior two years and saw a $10 billion fossil-fuel power acquisition turn sour as wind and solar power gained momentum while GE's gas-turbine business struggled with faulty turbine blades.

GE said its power unit took $400 million in charges in the fourth quarter, including a small amount for blade repairs at dozens of customers around the world. That was on top of $240 million for blade repairs in the third quarter.

GE booked a $666 million profit for the fourth quarter and revenue rose 5 percent to $33.3 billion, above analyst estimates of $32.6 billion, according to Refinitiv IBES.

Industrial free cash flow of $4.9 billion in the quarter, topped the $4 billion threshold that investors were looking to beat, Gordon Haskett analyst John Inch wrote in a note.

GE's adjusted earnings totaled 17 cents a share, below analyst estimates of 22 cents, according to Refinitiv IBES data.

Reporting by Alwyn Scott in New York and Rachit Vats in Bengaluru Editing by Nick Zieminski and Dan Grebler

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