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Friday, April 11, 2008

GE finally convinces investors that manufacturing is in trouble

This post is for those who appreciate a little irony.

I have written two recent posts about trouble in the manufacturing sector. The first one discussed the Fed's manufacturing report in mid-March and a couple of regional Fed surveys. The second post discussed the Durable Goods report released toward the end of March.

My position at the time was that all these economic reports supplied by the government indicated that industrial stocks were due for a fall.

Based on my outlook, I entered a small position in the ProShares UltraShort Industrials ETF (SIJ). My timing was horrible as the entire market immediately made a strong move up and left pretty much all the ultra short funds reeling. Eventually, SIJ hit a stop and the position was closed with a loss.

Today, General Electric (GE) reports an unexpected shortfall in earnings and industrial stocks and related ETFs plunged while SIJ jumped up 7.88%.

Irony #1: GE's reason for the decline in earnings: primarily problems in the financial sector.

Irony #2: The infrastructure portion of the business turned in double-digit gains. In other words, one of GE's biggest manufacturing operations performed better than any other business segment. Yet industrial companies, in general, took a hit.

By way of providing further detail, NBC/Universal was singled out by analysts as showing weak growth. Still that was better than the negative growth in the healthcare segment (off 17%), Commercial Finance (down 20%) and GE Money (down 19%). In the overall industrial segment, profit growth was down 16% despite the success of the infrastructure operation.

During the conference call, however, the company did admit that conditions in the U.S. are slowing and that, generally speaking, it is a "tough environment". Appliances and NBC/Universal were identified as segments that would be "an early warning" to problems in the economy.

GE says it is "not counting on the business getting any better, vis-à-vis...the U.S. consumer" for the rest of the year. Accordingly, it lowered its projections for 2008 by 5% to 8%.

Irony #3: The government generates all these reports which may move the markets for a day or two but no analysts actually change their views on the bellwether companies that might be affected. Finally, GE confirms the bad news in the reports and the market finally buys into the idea that maybe manufacturing is hitting a rough spot. A market sell-off ensues.

Apparently, I am not the only one who was expecting problems with industrial/manufacturing stocks. In a Wall Street Journal MarketBeat interview with Phil Orlando of Federated Investors, he had the following comment regarding GE: "They missed the quarter badly and as you dig through the data you find they had three problems: one is financial services, one is domestic appliances, which is a quasi-housing play and the third area was, surprisingly, health care. Two of the three misses on GE’s earnings were altogether predictable." Predictable how? The same reports I referred to above were probably among the sources. And the well-known slowdown in all industries related to housing easily translates into declines in a number of manufacturing sectors.

At any rate, SIJ closed today at $63.23 and GE closed at $32.05. What price they will be trading at in a few months?

Sources:
Silicon Alley Insider - Pathetic GE: Blame Bear Stearns for Our Mess

MarketWatch - General Electric's quarterly net off 6%; outlook cut

MarketBeat - Q & A: Phil Orlando, Federated Investors

Disclosure: author has no position in GE nor SIJ

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