General Electric Co.’s fourth-quarter net income fell 19 percent, but the industrial bellwether is seeing signs of stability as it moves into a key rebuilding year.
The drop in profit was smaller than previous quarters on gains in areas like power plant turbines and oil field equipment. Orders for big equipment improved near the end of the year. And results surpassed Wall Street forecasts for the conglomerate, which is coming off one of the worst years in its 117-year history.
Company shares rose 37 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $16.39 in pre-market trading.
“We saw some encouraging signs at year-end,” GE Chairman and CEO Jeff Immelt said Friday in a statement announcing quarterly and 2009 results.
But some familiar problems that hampered GE in 2009 persisted. Profits for engines used in commercial and military jets fell, along with demand for GE’s train locomotives, a likely sign that businesses remain hesitant to buy expensive equipment after a painful recession. Overall revenue fell 10 percent in the quarter to $41 billion.
The big GE Capital finance unit — the source of most of GE’s problems in 2009 — squeezed out a modest profit in the fourth quarter. But it was still dogged by problems in its holdings and lending in commercial real estate. GE Capital’s $336 million in overall earnings dropped 67 percent from a year earlier.
Profits fell 30 percent at NBC Universal, which has struggled with much lower advertising income and other problems. GE is selling its majority stake in the ailing entertainment unit.
For the quarter, GE posted net income of $2.94 billion, or 28 cents per share. That compared with $3.65 billion, or 35 cents, a year earlier. Analysts expected 26 cents per share in earnings.
One of world’s largest companies, Fairfield, Conn.-based GE is considered a barometer of the nation’s economic health since it is involved in sectors ranging from energy to finance. Homeowners buy GE kitchen appliances, power plants use GE gas turbines and hospitals buy GE MRI machines. Consumers use credit cards backed by GE money and businesses turn to the company for loans to buy expensive equipment.
GE’s results for 2009 — a 37 percent drop in annual earnings — indicate just how deeply the recession affected the company.
It lost its top credit rating, cut its dividend by 68 percent, and saw its stock retreat to depths not hit since the early 1990s. GE’s quarterly profits were down substantially as the recession gouged its industrial businesses and the financial crisis battered its GE Capital lending arm.
In an effort to achieve stability, GE is trying to rely much less on GE Capital’s profits, which once made up half of the conglomerate’s earnings. GE says that some segments, like consumer credit cards, are in better shape after GE Capital took steps like scaling back on lending and tightening credit.
But GE Capital will remain a sore point for GE in 2010. The company expects that losses from soured loans won’t peak until this year. And the unit remains broadly exposed to commercial real estate, a market that is still in decline.
That unit posted a $593 million quarterly loss and lost a whopping $1.5 billion on the year.
GE expects to amass $26 billion in cash by the end of this year, much of it from its deal to sell its majority stake in NBC Universal to cable operator Comcast. GE has said little about how it plans to use that money.