The $15 billion money pit dragging General Electric down
Jack Welch built it, Jeff Immelt milked it, and John Flannery failed to fix it.
Now Larry Culp must figure out what to do with the troubled remnants of GE Capital, the finance arm that nearly sank General Electric Co. a decade ago.
With anxiety over GE running high on Wall Street, Culp, the new chief executive, has a lot of work to do. So far GE, once the quintessential American conglomerate, just keeps stumbling from bad to worse.
But perhaps Culp’s most formidable challenge is the gaping hole inside the financial unit. A big part of the trouble has to do with GE’s book of long-term care insurance, a vestige of GE Capital that backs policies that pay for things like home health aides and nursing-home stays. Once little more than an afterthought, the portfolio has turned into a money pit that threatens to complicate efforts to turn around GE as worries grow over a funding shortage.
While GE has tried all year to offload the liabilities, and while Culp said no issue at the finance arm gets more attention, few see any easy answers. The problem is twofold. As medical costs soar and Americans live longer, GE’s assumptions about what it will have to pay out are proving to be too rosy. This year, the firm said it will need an extra $15 billion to cover future claims.
But unloading them on a would-be buyer would probably come at a very steep price. Past deals have suggested that transactions of this type are often prohibitively expensive, analysts at Evercore Inc. have said.
Insurers including Athene Holding, backed by private equity firm Apollo Global Management, have expressed interest in GE’s insurance assets, but talks have cooled under Culp, according to people familiar with the matter. GE has also held talks with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc. about absorbing its insurance liabilities, two people said.
‘‘It’s very difficult to sell’’ these types of policies, said GB Taglioni, North American leader of Boston Consulting’s insurance practice, who declined to talk about GE specifically. ‘‘There have been a lot of sellers, and there have been, up until now, very few buyers.’’ A GE spokeswoman declined to comment beyond recent filings and public comments, while Athene and Apollo also declined to comment. A Berkshire representative didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The situation has become all the more pressing as worries about GE’s finances deepen. In the past year, the company’s woes have wiped out more than $90 billion from its stock market value, called into question the sustainability of its debt burden, and cost Flannery his job.
The insurance business itself came to the fore in spectacular fashion earlier this year after GE disclosed a $6.2 billion charge for the fourth quarter of 2017. It led to an ongoing investigation of GE’s accounting practices and shined a light on how precarious GE Capital’s situation was
And just this week, Gordon Haskett analyst John Inch flagged a potential trouble spot within one of the more profitable parts of the finance unit, GE’s aircraft leasing arm. The division, which Inch sees as vulnerable to a pullback in the energy industry following a rival’s bankruptcy, has been the subject of intensifying deal speculation.
While GE is hardly alone when it comes to the headaches caused by long-term care policies, it stands out because of the sheer size of its reserve deficit. Complicating matters is the fact that, as a reinsurer of 300,000 long-term care policies, GE is on the hook for payouts tied to those policies but has no power to increase rates itself and must rely on the primary insurers to raise them.
GE has a plan to plug the deficit. It will set aside the $15 billion it needs over seven years and has already contributed $3.5 billion of that this year. A sustained jump in interest rates could reduce GE’s deficit. Blackstone Group and Guggenheim Partners have expressed interest in managing its insurance assets, people familiar with the matter said, which could also help GE narrow its shortfall if they can produce higher returns.
But the worry is that the liabilities will just keep growing as America’s health care costs outpace those of every other developed nation. GE has warned that there’s a risk the amount of its contributions could change. The open-ended nature of the obligations could ultimately stand in the way of a potential deal.
Industry insiders say they expect GE will need to cover a substantial part of its hole before buyers entertain any serious offers over price.