GE’s Goodwill is Electric

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It seems that GE’s woes are going from bad to worse. While the shares have been slayed as earnings have been restated and restructuring is underway pundits are wondering whether the horror is properly priced in. GE, in the days of CEO Jack Welch was a killer. A $500bn wrecking ball which claimed it had to be a Top 3 in everything it did or it wasn’t worth it. GE is now worth $122bn, the stock halving since the start of 2017. Goodwill on the balance sheet has exploded from $68bn to $83bn while shareholders equity has slid from $76bn to $64bn. So subtracting the Goodwill from shareholders equity gives us minus $18.7bn.

Goodwill refers to the amount paid, when acquiring a company, that is in excess of fair value of the firm’s net assets. Let’s say the fair value of Company A’s net assets are $8bn, and Company B purchases Company A for an amount which corresponds to $11bn. After the transaction, Company B will be left with $3bn worth of Goodwill on its balance sheet. The intangible value expressed by goodwill is what Company B believes will exist in the combined company down the line in things such as brand name. However Goodwill has the potential to inflate the perceived level of Shareholder’s Equity in a company. Let’s say Company B has $20B worth of assets, $19B worth of liabilities, and $1B worth of shareholder’s equity. As this $3bn goodwill amount is a non-cash asset, and furthermore unlikely to ever be converted into anything of value to the corporation, then the argument could be made that Company B actually has negative $2B worth of equity. In GE’s case, it has almost $19bn in negative equity.

Interesting to note that Parker Hannifin was also in negative equity at its FY2017 close. When looking at many Japanese industrials like Komatsu or Amada they are comfortably in positive equity. So when the stock market eventually lunches itself, the American industrials do not appear to have the same meat in the balance sheet as the Japanese. Which sort of tells us that GE, as much as investors seem to be wanting to catch that falling knife, may be well advised to wait much longer. The word “too big to fail” somehow resonates much less these days.

As we wrote several weeks ago, the ratings agencies have made it clear that the average quality of US corporate debt has deteriorated severely over the last decade. Much of it was thanks to leveraging up at such chronically low interest rates.  One could argue it was rational however it seems it became addictive, driving merciless M&A deals which loaded all this goodwill on the balance sheet in the quest to drive ROE. The corporate bond spreads between AA and BBB- is currently a paltry 75bps (0.75%). Please refer to page 21.

With the US Fed curtailing its balance sheet and $9 trillion of short term national debt funding needing recycling in the near term, that corporate bond interest rate differential is unlikely to stay so tight. This could turn pear shaped very quickly.

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