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General Electric Bears Need a Reality Check

You won't have Immelt to kick around anymore. That's the biggest news out of General Electric (NYSE: GE) this summer: Outgoing CEO Jeff Immelt is handing the reins to incoming CEO John Flannery.

Some bearish investors aren't impressed, though, believing that Flannery is going to be saddled with the same downward trends as his predecessor and that the stock is still likely to underperform peers like Honeywell International (NYSE: HON)United Technologies (NYSE: UTX), and the German Siemens (NASDAQOTH: SIEGY). But before you rush to short GE, here are a few things to consider.

Top industrial conglomerate General Electric is reconfiguring itself in hopes of outperforming. Changes include putting its lighting business up for sale. Image source: Getty Images.

Sell high, not low

GE's stock has already been beaten down by the stock market. As of this writing, it's sitting just above $27/share -- about where it was in early 2014. Of course, that could be a legitimate market correction reflecting reduced value in a company that has sold off many of its businesses and has made some poorly timed investments in oil and gas. But it also could be an overcorrection that indicates a buying opportunity.

GE bears will point out that the company's price-to-earnings (P/E) ratio, at 27.9, is much higher than any of its industrial conglomerate peers. Honeywell's is only 21.0, and Siemens' is all the way down at 17.8. And it's true that GE has historically been in line with its peers' P/E ratios -- until the company started selling off its big financial holdings in 2015. 

But today's GE is a very different company than it was in early 2015. Gone are most of the GE Capital businesses, including the consumer credit cards that caused such problems for the company during the financial crisis. Gone is the underperforming consumer appliances business. And the troubled oil and gas division is about to be merged with oilfield-services company Baker Hughes

Also, when you look at forward P/E, GE's 16.5 is lower than United Technologies' 18.4 and Honeywell's 18.8. In terms of dividend yield, which can sometimes serve as a proxy for value, GE's current 3.5% yield is near the top of its yield range since the financial crisis. Meanwhile, Siemens, United Technologies, and Honeywell are all near the low end of their post-2010 ranges. 

This paints a decidedly mixed picture of the company's valuation. However, it's clearly not an obviously overvalued company, as some GE bears would have you believe.

Don't change horses in midstream

That, of course, was Lincoln's re-election campaign slogan during the U.S. Civil War. But it could easily apply to GE investors.

GE is in the midst of a major transition that began all the way back in 2013 when Immelt sold off the company's stake in NBC Universal. The changes that ensued -- including the selling off of most of GE Capital, shedding its systemically important financial institution (SIFI) status, and making the huge acquisition of Alstom's power unit -- have made it very tricky for analysts and investors to compare apples to apples when measuring GE's past performance against its potential future results.

And the changes aren't done yet. In addition to the Baker Hughes merger, GE has agreed to sell its water business to French company Suez, is seeking a buyer for its consumer lighting business, and is making major technological advances to its Predix software platform.

Until the dust settles, it's probably going to be tough to predict what's in store for the company, which will still maintain its brand power, global supply chain, and powerful research and development (R&D) operation. That's a formidable combination to bet against.

Give a guy a chance

New CEO John Flannery may be new to the corner office, but he's a veteran GE insider, having headed the company's healthcare unit and before that, its operations in India.

Many particularly bearish GE investors focused their ire on Jeff Immelt, believing he was taking the company in the wrong direction. Flannery, though, has quite deftly dodged questions of whether he's planning on continuing Immelt's trajectory, or taking things in an entirely new direction.

Instead, Flannery has pledged to conduct an immediate review of "all aspects of the company ... with speed and with urgency and with no constraint." And while he absolutely refused, in a recent conference call, to speculate about the possibility of breaking up the company, he has also pointedly avoided taking any options -- including a breakup -- off the table. He has promised a full report in the fall.

Until then, selling your stock in GE is probably premature. Flannery might come up with the perfect prescription for GE's woes... or at least something that makes the market more bullish on the company's future. 

Investor takeaway

I'm cautiously optimistic about General Electric's prospects, but I don't regard it as a slam dunk, even at its current price of about $27/share. However, the company's current 3.5% dividend yield is nice and offers a decent incentive to wait for things at the company to settle down into a "new normal."

If you don't think all the turmoil is worth it, there are plenty of other industrial conglomerates to consider. Siemens, Honeywell, and United Technologies all have outperformed GE over one-, three-, five-, and 10-year time frames. Of course, that may just mean that GE is overdue for a jump.

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John Bromels has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.