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从这个指标看,通用电气已经岌岌可危

Shawn Tully 2019年09月01日

一项十分可靠的财务指标显示,通用电气庞大的资产基础只能产生少量现金。

通用电气的生产范围覆盖从超声波扫描仪到B-52发动机,再到核电站涡轮机等各个门类的产品,它能否重振传奇般的工业业务,东山再起?

这是通用电气新上任的明星首席执行官拉里·卡尔普的保证,他肯定通用电气“基础雄厚”,并承诺“改变公司的日常工作方式和经营方式。”

今天,围绕通用电气的头条新闻不是其基础业务的命运,而是哈利·马科波洛斯的诈骗调查报告。这位揭露了诈骗犯伯尼·麦道夫的会计侦探称,通用电气隐瞒其长期护理保险业务(LTC)的巨额亏损,这家已经陷入困境的集团很快会因此破产。

如果仔细评估通用电气的实体业务,可以看到它们目前的业绩十分不尽人意,即使保险业务像通用电气所言不会构成重大威胁,新管理层要想让集团恢复盈利,任务也十分艰巨。一项十分可靠的财务指标显示(我们将稍后讨论),通用电气庞大的资产基础只能产生少量现金,这和一家成功制造商的目标背道而驰。

马科波洛斯的报告让投资者感到紧张,通用电气的股价应声下跌11%。但截至目前,市场对通用电气将全面崩溃的说法并不买账。华尔街大多都支持卡尔普和审计委员会主席莱斯利·塞德曼,后者曾任美国财务会计准则委员会(FASB)主席,是全美首席会计师。塞德曼反驳说,通用电气拥有充足的准备金,足以支付LTC客户日后的索赔。通用电气的领导层还声称,马科波洛斯不足为信,因为马科波洛斯本人也承认,对通用电气的抨击可以让这个“告密者”从中受益。马科波洛斯透露,他正在与一家未具名的对冲基金合作,该基金将从做空通用电气股票的利润中拿出一部分支付给他。

问题是,即使卡尔普能够逐步退出LTC业务而且不造成严重后果,通用电气的未来也将取决于四大支柱产业的表现:电力、医疗保健、航空和可再生能源。通用电气的失败并不是因为其坚实的工业臂膀被一个陷入困境的保险部门拖累了——这臂膀本身就看起来十分孱弱。

十年动荡

过去10年,通用电气一直处于动荡之中,因此掩盖了其现有幸存业务的真实状况。自2009年以来,该公司出售了十多个业务部门,包括媒体(NBC Universal)、家电、交通和通用电气金融(GE Capital)的大部分融资业务,还经历了和铁路运输公司阿尔斯通(Alstom)以及石油和天然气公司贝克休斯(Baker Hughes)不成功的并购。通用电气支付股息和回购股票的费用与其实际利润毫无关系。这是因为它将出售资产所得的2000多亿美元中大部分都用于上述两项计划的巨额开支。从2009年到2018年,该公司在股息和回购上总共花费了约1300亿美元,比过去10年的净利润高出近800亿美元。

未来,通用电气将依赖于四大幸存支柱产业的现金流来回报股东。其中能够衡量其经营状况的一个可靠方法是COROA,即“资产的现金运营回报率”,该指标由会计专家杰克·西谢尔斯基发明。COROA衡量的是一家公司每年从投资于该业务的所有资产中产生的现金量。它显示的是管理层通过利用股东委托给他们的工厂、信息技术、库存和营运资本等资源所达到的盈利表现。

第一个基本要素是“运营现金流”。它指的是报告中的经营业务现金流量(也就是GAAP现金流量表上的数字),加上支付利息和税收的现金,这就是经营业务产生的现金。分母是资产总额;也就是报告中的资产,加上“累计折旧和摊销”。为什么要把这些加回去?因为这样才能算出用于产生收益的资产总额。

通用电气的数据历年来稳步大幅下滑。2013年,该公司公布的运营现金流为350亿美元;在接下来的五年里,该数字每年都在下降,2018年达到105亿美元,降幅达70%。这主要是由于该公司基础业务产生的现金出现下滑。其报告中的经营业务现金流量(加回利息和税收之前)从2016年的300亿美元下降到去年的42亿美元。由于通用电气退出的业务比收购的业务多得多,平均资产也出现了下降,但降幅没有那么大,约为50%。因此,通用电气的COROA——一个衡量公司盈利能力的关键指标,从已经疲软的4.8%下降到2.7%。

与一流的工业集团企业相比,这个数字十分难看:赛默飞世尔科技(Thermo Fisher Scientific)为8.4%,霍尼韦尔(Honeywell)为11.8%,3M为15%。

但通用电气并不完全是工业企业。虽然它已经退出了以前的大部分融资业务,但它仍然拥有LTC业务,尽管马科波洛斯认为该业务将击沉整个企业。如果通用金融真得败得一塌涂地,是否说明该公司工业业务的利润其实比看上去要高得多呢?

根据通用电气2018年的10K报表,情况并非如此。报表第101页的现金流量表显示,通用电气工业部门经营业务现金流量仅为22.58亿美元。加上利息和税收,它的运营现金流(来自于电力、航空、医疗保健、可再生能源部门以及一些小规模业务),总共只有62.6亿美元,这些业务的平均资产为2880亿美元。因此,通用电气工业部门的COROA仅为2.17%。所以说,最大的问题并不是通用电气金融——它是通用电气保险业务的大本营(尽管未来可能会发生变化)。

62.6亿美元的数字可能低估了该公司工业部门创造现金的能力。去年,该公司为其养老金计划支付了63亿美元,通用电气表示,加上这笔资金将能满足其2021年之前的需求。当然,为养老金计划提供资金是企业经营的常规成本。即便如此,加上这笔钱的2/3(即通用电气提前支付的41.9亿美元)或许更公平。这样,公司的运营现金流为104.5亿美元(62.6亿美元加41.9亿美元)。

即使在调整之后,通用电气的COROA也只有3.6%。今年上半年,通用电气报告的经营业务现金流为负12亿美元。卡尔普承诺要取得重大进展。他在第二季度的电话会议上宣布,预计“2020年工业部门的净现金流将实现正值,之后将在2021年加速。随着时间的推移,随着我们的运营状况得到改善,我们预计现金流将继续得到显著改善。”

只有一个拉里·卡尔普,通用电气目前微不足道的COROA不会腾飞。卡尔普在2001年至2014年担任丹纳赫(Danaher)的首席执行官期间,创造了一个了不起的纪录,在生产精密牙科器械和净水设备的业务中,投入到工厂和库存中的每一美元能够榨出越来越多的现金。丹纳赫一直在展示一个工业集团能够做到什么,而通用电气则是浪费资本的反面教材。卡尔普担任丹纳赫首席执行官的最后两年里,平均COROA高达11.3%,比通用电气工业部门2018年的三倍还要多。

如果卡尔普认为LTC不会构成威胁的观点是正确的,那么他要努力一举完成美国商业史上最伟大的两件事:建立一个工业巨头,拯救建立起美国工业模板却已摇摇欲坠的巨人。(财富中文网)

译者:Agatha

Can GE stage a comeback by reviving its fabled collection of industrial businesses that make everything from ultrasound scanners to B-52 engines to turbines for nuclear plants?

That’s the pledge from its newly-installed, superstar CEO Larry Culp, who has praised GE’s “strong fundamentals on which to build,” and promised to “transform the way that we actually work, and run these businesses day in and day out.”

Today, the big news about GE isn’t the fate of those bedrock businesses, but the scorched-earth report from Harry Markopolos. The accounting sleuth who exposed scamster Bernie Madoff charges that huge, hidden losses in its long-term care (LTC) insurance business will soon drive the troubled conglomerate into bankruptcy.

But a careful assessment of GE’s industrial businesses reveals that right now, they’re performing so poorly that even if the insurance side doesn’t pose a major threat, as GE claims, the new management faces a tough task in restoring the conglomerate to profitability. An excellent financial measure we’ll get to later reveals that GE is generating tiny dollops of cash on a giant base of assets, the opposite of what a successful manufacturer needs to achieve.

The Markpolos report made investors nervous, and has triggered an 11% drop in GE’s stock price. But so far, the markets aren’t buying the full-blown disaster scenario. Wall Street is mostly backing Culp and audit committee head Leslie Seidman, formerly America’s chief accountant as head of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), who’ve countered that GE’s holds fully adequate reserves to cover future claims on its LTC portfolio. GE’s leadership also asserts that Markopolos lacks all credibility because, as he’s acknowledged, the “whistleblower” is benefiting financially from trashing GE. Markopolos has disclosed that he’s working with an un-named hedge fund that's paying him a share of their profits from shorting GE stock.

The problem is, even if Culp can gradually exit LTC without the dire consequences, GE’s future will depend on the performance of four industrial mainstays: power, healthcare, aviation, and renewable energy. GE isn’t failing because a troubled insurance unit is dragging down a solid industrial arm—that arm looks feeble, too.

A decade of upheaval

In the last decade, GE has been in a state of constant upheaval that’s obscured the condition of its surviving businesses. Since 2009, it’s sold more than a dozen units including media (NBC Universal), appliances, transportation, and most of the GE Capital financing operations, while pursuing unsuccessful mergers with Alstom (rail transport) and Baker Hughes (oil and gas). What GE paid in dividends and spent on share repurchases bore no relation to its actual profits. That’s because it used much of the over-$200 billion in proceeds from asset sales to fund gigantic outlays for both. From 2009 to 2018, it spent roughly $130 billion on the dividends and buybacks combined, almost $80 billion more than its net profits over those ten years.

Going forward, GE will need to rely on cash flows from those four chosen survivors to reward shareholders. A reliable measure of how well they’re doing is COROA, or “Cash Operating Return on Assets,” a yardstick developed by accounting expert Jack Ciesielski. COROA measures how much cash a company generates each year from all of the assets invested in the business. It shows how profitably management is deploying the plants, IT, inventories, and working capital entrusted to them by shareholders.

The first building block is “operating cash flow.” It's simply the reported cash from operating activities, as reported on the GAAP cash flow statement, plus cash paid for interest and taxes, which results in the cash produced from running the business. The denominator consists of all the dollars invested in assets; that’s assets as reported, plus “accumulated depreciation and amortization.” Why add those back? Because adding them back arrives at the total dollars spent on the assets being deployed to generate a return.

GE’s numbers chronicle a steep and ongoing decline. In 2013, it posted operating cash flow of $35 billion; it’s fallen in every one of the five succeeding year, hitting $10.5 billion in 2018, a drop of 70%. This resulted mainly from a slide in the cash it books from running its basic businesses. Its reported cash from operations (before adding back cash interest and taxes) dropped from $30 billion in 2016 to $4.2 billion last year. Because GE was exiting a lot more businesses than it was buying, its average assets also fell, but not nearly as far, a declining by around half. As a result, GE’s COROA, a crucial measure of its profitability, dropped from an already weak 4.8% to just 2.7%.

That compares poorly to leading industrial conglomerates: Thermo Fisher Scientific at 8.4%, Honeywell at 11.8%, and 3M at 15%.

But GE isn’t all industrial. Though it’s exited most of its former financing businesses, the GE Capital unit still holds the LTC franchise that Markopolos believes will sink the entire enterprise. What if GE Capital is a huge loser, so that the industrial side is really far more profitable than it might appear?

According to GE’s 10K for 2018, that’s not the case. The cash flow statement on page 101 reports that GE’s industrial businesses had cash from operations of a measly $2.258 billion. Add back interest and taxes, and its operating cash flow (from the power, aviation, healthcare and renewable energy units, and some smaller operations), totalled only $6.26 billion in cash, on average assets in those businesses of $288 billion. Hence, the industrial side’s COROA was an tiny 2.17%. So the problem wasn’t primarily GE Capital, home of the insurance franchise (though that could change going forward).

It’s possible that the $6.26 billion number is understating the industrial side’s ability to generate cash. Last year, it made $6.3 billion contribution to its pension plan, a addition that, GE says, covers its needs through 2021. Of course, funding a pension plan is a regular cost of doing business. Even so, it might be fair to add back two-thirds of that number, or $4.19 billion, the amount GE is effectively pre-paying. That would bring its operating cash flows to $10.45 billion ($6.26 plus $4.19 billion).

Even after that adjustment, GE’s COROA is a weak 3.6%. And in the first half of this year, GE reported negative cash from operations of $1.2 billion. Culp is promising big improvements. He declared on the Q2 conference call that he expects “industrial free cash flow to be in positive territory in 2020 and accelerate thereafter in 2021. Over time, as our operational improvements take hold, we continue to expect significantly better cash results.”

GE’s currently puny COROA won’t fly with a Larry Culp. As the chief of Danaher from 2001 to 2014, he forged a fantastic record squeezing more and more cash from every dollar invested in the plants and inventories that produced its precision dental instruments and water purification equipment. Danaher kept showing what an industrial conglomerate can accomplish, while GE proved a case study in squandering capital. In his final two years at CEO, Culp achieved average COROA of 11.3%, more than three times the GE industrial side's record for 2018.

If Culp’s right that LTC doesn’t pose a threat, he’ll be striving for one of the great twofers in the annals of American business, building one industrial giant, and rescuing the foundering colossus that established the template.

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