GE stock hits 4-year low as analysts debate possibility of dividend cut


Concern among investors that General Electric may not generate enough cash this year to fully cover its dividend and other promised spending sent its stock to its lowest level in more than four years on Wednesday.

The shares fell 1.2 percent to $23.07 after JPMorgan said a dividend cut was "increasingly likely" and lowered its price target on the stock to $20 from $22.

"Despite the recent CEO change, by the numbers we see a core operating performance that is below (GE's) plan," JPMorgan analyst Stephen Tusa wrote in a note on Wednesday, referring to GE's full year forecast. Tusa was not available to comment beyond the note.

Chief Executive John Flannery, who took over the position on August 1, is doing a comprehensive review of the company and is due to set new targets for earnings and capital allocation, which includes dividends, on Nov. 13.

GE has affirmed its commitment to the dividend, which gives GE stock the second-highest dividend yield in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and ranks it 30th among the S&P 500.

"Dividends remain a top priority," GE spokeswoman Jennifer Erickson said on Wednesday, declining to answer further questions as the company is in a quiet period ahead of its third-quarter results due next week. The dividend due to be paid Oct. 25 is not subject to being cut.

GE's stock has fallen 5.4 percent since Friday, including falling 1.24 percent to $23.07 on Wednesday, its lowest close since Sept. 3, 2013. The stock is down 27 percent this year, the worst Dow performer.

On Friday GE said that its long-time Chief Financial Officer Jeff Bornstein would retire and be replaced by Jamie Miller, who has been the head of its transportation unit.

A Reuters analysis of a GE presentation released in July and executives' comments showed that GE could generate $6 billion less cash this year than it planned to spend on dividends, share buybacks and other items. Its plan called for spending up to $25.8 billion, including about $8 billion on dividends, while generating about $20 billion in cash from operations and asset sales.

GE has the capacity to pay the dividend. The company has more than $14 billion in cash on its balance sheet and $327 billion in orders for power plants, jet engines, locomotives, oil and gas equipment and healthcare devices.

It could trim other spending instead, such as buying back fewer shares than the $11 billion to $13 billion it has targeted for this year.

The 125-year-old company has cut its dividend six times in the last 34 years, including a 68 percent cut in 2009 during the financial crisis. It is operating against a far more favorable economic backdrop now.

"A dividend cut could crush the stock as retail investors flee, but maintaining it gives GE little or no excess cash to grow," Jeffrey Sprague, an analyst at Vertical Research Partners, said in a note after the Bornstein announcement on Friday.

"GE has continued to shrink the company but it has not proportionally shrunk the dividend."

Some analysts saw a dividend cut as unlikely.

"Cutting the dividend would be a last resort," Moody's Investors Service credit analyst Rene Lipsch told Reuters on Wednesday. But, he said, GE's options would narrow next year when it no longer receives billions from asset sales at GE Capital.

Long term, he said, the dividend "depends on Flannery's ability to increase cash flow from the businesses."

(Reporting by Alwyn Scott; Editing by Toni Reinhold)