by Simon Black
Earlier this month, General Electric took a $6.2 billion charge to its insurance unit for the fourth quarter. And the company said it will set aside another $15 billion over seven years to bolster reserves at GE Capital.
The charge had to do with long-term care policies (to pay for nursing homes and other late-life care) GE holds on its books.
So, one of the oldest and most highly-regarded companies in America just made a small, $21 billion miscalculation. Oops.
Keep in mind, GE’s entire market cap is only $140 billion.
The insurance charge, along with costs tied to the US tax plan, led GE to a $9.64 billion loss in the fourth quarter.
Then last week, GE announced the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was investigating the company’s accounting practices (specifically how the company books revenue from long-term service contracts on things like power-plant repairs and jet-engine maintenance).
But this isn’t GE’s first run in with the SEC…
The company’s accounting practices have long been considered a “black box.” The New York Times even published a story in 2009 comparing the company to Enron – the energy giant brought down by fraudulent accounting.
And is all started with GE’s legendary former CEO Jack Welch.
Welch would regularly beat Wall Street’s earnings estimates by a penny or two. And he was named manager of the century by Fortune Magazine for his ability to pump GE’s stock.
And while Welch is lauded for his “six sigma” management, it seems his real talent was using GE’s many divisions to move assets around and goose earnings to hit short-term numbers.
The creative accounting caught up with GE in 2009, when the company paid $50 million to settle SEC allegations it had used improper accounting methods to boost numbers in 2002 and 2003.
Among the strategies GE used to make its 2003 numbers was selling railroad cars to banks, with side deals and verbal promises to assure the banks they couldn’t lose money on the deal.
Enron used the same trick in 1999 when it “sold” Nigerian barges to Merrill Lynch, allowing the company to fake a $12 million profit.
Today GE is a $140 billion company (shares are down by nearly half over the past 12 month). The company has nearly $160 billion in debt. And in fiscal year 2016, the company lost $41 billion in cash.
GE’s financial performance makes my favorite whipping boy, Netflix, look like a piker.
GE got here, in part, because the government guaranteed all of the company’s debts until 2012 to help it survive the Great Financial Crisis.
Then the Fed lowered interest rates and printed trillions of dollars to goose the economy.
Instead of using this beneficial environment to repair its horrible balance sheet, GE spent some $50 billion buying back stock and paying dividends… and allowed Welch’s successor, Jeff Immelt, to walk away with $211 million (despite the company erasing $150 billion of market cap value during his tenure).
GE has gotten away with this behavior because we’re in the middle of one of the largest asset booms in history. The markets are at all-time highs. And nobody asks the tough questions when they’re making money.
It doesn’t take a giant pin to prick the bubble. It just takes something unexpected… Nobody ever knows what will set off the next crisis.
But in GE’s case, you can bet there isn’t just one cockroach.
Plus, interest rates are rising today (the 10-year Treasury is above 2.7%) and the Fed is taking away the quantitative easing punch bowl. What will happen to overly indebted companies like GE (who are likely covering up more huge losses) when the credit dries up and debt service gets way more expensive?
Mind you, GE already can’t afford its debt.
GE is just one example of a potential crisis in the making.
Maybe a bank sets off the next crisis…
I just read a Wall Street Journal piece about “drive by appraisals.” When the big institutional investors, like private equity giant Blackstone, started buying tens of thousands of individual homes, they needed a quick way to appraise the properties to get loans.
Blackstone and its lender, Deutsche Bank, settled on these drive by appraisals, where brokers give their price opinion of the property. These assessments, called broker price opinions (BPOs) were outlawed by congress after the crisis.
But the prohibition doesn’t apply to investors buying tens of thousands of homes (of course you don’t want to have an accurate asset value for collateral behind really big loans).
Sometimes brokers will even outsource the process to India, where companies will use Google Earth and real estate website to come up with home values.
BPOs have been used to value homes backing more than $20 billion of bonds sold by companies like Blackstone.
As Warren Buffett says, “you never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.”
Just know, there are major losses – and likely fraud – hiding out there today. But it’s gone largely ignored because of the one-way market we’ve experienced since 2010.
GE and these drive by loans are just two examples. And the worst is yet to come.
by Simon Black