The headline's a take-off from the musical Lil' Abner, as well as a famous line from one-time GM chairman Charles Wilson. But what was once true about General Bullmoose and General Motors is now true for General Electric (GE). After all, everyone agrees that to succeed, America needs to make stuff. We need to make better stuff. And we need to make stuff that gets us out of the energy hole we're in.
That's been GE CEO Jeff Immelt's strategy for a decade now. He took the financial-entertainment conglomerate put together by Jack Welch and has slowly transformed it into a heavy industry company, selling appliances, engines, and energy technology.
That remains a work in progress. GE still makes more from GE Capital than from industrial products. But the work continues. In the last year GE sold a credit card operation and bought two energy companies, the former Dresser Industries and the Wellstream pipe company. Its quarterly report no longer details the business of NBC-Universal.
That report held both good news and bad news. It disappointed on energy, did OK in aviation, and while it generally met expectations, the company blamed tight margins for the failure to do better.
Some analysts charged GE with slashing prices to boost industrial orders artificially, but the real problem is in renewable energy. It's a boom-bust industry, and right now the business is in the bust cycle.
As in many tech markets, like computer parts, wind turbines and solar panels exhibit a pre-1981 growth pattern. Inventories drive prices lower, new technology brings costs down, survivors make money for a while and then the pattern repeats. GE figures it's getting ahead of the next boom by building new factories now, a total investment of $600 million.
This “doubling down on 'ecomagination,'” as the company calls it, has made GE a lightning rod for criticism from the right, even though CEO Immelt, a lifelong Republican, is telling voters what they want to hear about American manufacturing.
GE continues to insist that next year will be better, that energy margins will improve, and that the company can maintain a solid growth rate while moving away from finance and moving more heavily into manufacturing. If it can sell what it makes, GE will be a buy. And so will the United States of America.
I don't know if I'm buying that, but I'm not selling, either. In my portfolio, GE remains a hold.
Disclosure: I am long GE.
Additional disclosure: My IRA bought 300 GE shares about a decade ago. There are now about 350 of the little devils in my portfolio, thanks to dividend reinvestment.