General Electric’s 119-year-old dividend is a source of pride inside this once-dependable company.
One of the only things that GE bulls and bears on Wall Street seem to agree on is that the dividend will get cut.
“Everyone we speak to expects a huge dividend cut,” Barclays analyst Julian Mitchell wrote to clients this week after talking to more than 70 financial institutions about GE.
Even though Mitchell is bullish on GE, the Barclays analyst believes Culp will slash the dividend by 80%. “It could be higher,” he wrote.
GE already halved its dividend last November, dealing a blow to the company’s retirees and large base of mom-and-pop shareholders. Tellingly, the previous two times GE had to cut its dividend were the Great Depression and in 2009 during the financial crisis.
Dividend cuts are rare right now. Corporate America, flush with cash from the booming economy and huge tax cuts, is handing out dividends like candy these days.
At least 291 S&P 500 companies have hiked their dividend so far this year, according to Howard Silverblatt of S&P Dow Jones Indices. Just two S&P 500 companies have cut their dividend, Silverblatt said.
The problem is that even GE’s diminished dividend is still costing the company $4.2 billion a year. The dividend payout is swallowing most or all of GE’s projected free cash flow, which has cratered due to its slumping power division and trouble in its financial arm.
Earlier this month, S&P Global Ratings downgraded GE’s credit rating and it cited the dividend as a major lever Culp could pull to reduce debt.
“GE needs the money,” said John Inch, an analyst at Gordon Haskett Research Advisors. “A lot of people actually want the dividend cut because it’s apparent the company has a serious cash issue on its hands.”
Yet cutting the dividend further could accelerate an exodus by the chunk of GE’s shareholders that own the stock because of the dividend. JPMorgan Chase analyst C. Stephen Tusa, Jr., another GE skeptic predicting a large dividend cut, estimates about 60% of GE shares are owned by retail and passive money.
“Many GE employees and retirees own the stock, which makes it especially painful. I have sympathy for them,” said Martin Sankey, managing director of global equity research at Neuberger Berman.
Should the dividend get put on hold?
Others argue that Culp’s role as GE’s first-ever outsider CEO frees him to take more drastic action, including potentially suspending the dividend altogether. That’s what Goldman Sachs called for in June due to GE’s mountain of debt.
“They’re going to have to eliminate the dividend. They don’t have the balance sheet to support it,” said Jack De Gan, chief investment officer at Harbor Advisory, which owned GE shares for 21 years until last fall.