Last Friday, the world shook. You can be forgiven for not noticing, for, it was the business world that shook. GE announced it was going to virtually sell all of GE Capital.
GE is one of the, if not THE greatest company on earth. It is the old fashioned industrial conglomerate making everything from aircraft engines to medical equipment. It is known for its legendary business leaders, Reginald Jones, then Jack Welch and then Jeff Immelt. It is known for its excellence in management - it is really the business school where America's future CEOs are produced. It is the leader of many management trends of the future - Six Sigma, Outsourcing to India ....... you name it and GE was probably the first mover.
All that is fine, but in reality, GE was what it was because of GE Capital. For a long time it contributed 50% of the group profits. Although technically not a bank, GE Capital is one of America's largest "banks". Just before the financial crisis, you would have had to question whether GE was really an industrial company - a full 60% of its profits came from GE Capital.
And then the financial crisis hit. GE, yes even GE, had to resort to a government "bailout" in form of $130 bn of loan guarantees. Suddenly, being a big financial institution was bad news. GE's share price tanked and it lost its coveted AAA rating which it had had for 40 years. The jewel in the crown was sudenly turned into a lump of coal.
GE Capital turned around. Of course it would, given the outstanding management talent at its disposal. It is back to being very profitable and last year contributed more than 40% to GE's profits. But there are two lasting legacies - one is that GE became a SIFI" , the dreaded tag of a "Systematically Important Financial Institution" , which essentially is a sticker from the US government that it was too big to fail. SIFIs are subject to incredibly strict government requirements, tight regulation and surveillance post the financial crisis. The second legacy was GE's share price. In 2007 it was $42. Today, despite the resurrection of GE Capital, it is $25 or so. The market is simply scared of large financial institutions and the risks they pose.
GE did what it does best - take a hard decision. It has been announcing its intention to trim down GE Capital for quite a while. It had started to spin off bits and pieces. But on Friday, it announced a virtual disposal of GE Capital. It would sell off almost everything over two years and hold only the parts of GE Capital that were intimately tied to its industrial business - like aircraft leasing. The mighty GE is shrinking. It will become a smaller conglomerate. And it will become an industrial group once again.