SEC opens investigation into GE's accounting

Corporate giant says error could cost it $15 billion

Bloomberg

GE chief executive John Flannery has set in motion an overhaul that includes plans to revamp the board of directors and sell off business units.
Bloomberg GE chief executive John Flannery has set in motion an overhaul that includes plans to revamp the board of directors and sell off business units.

General Electric said Wednesday the Securities and Exchange Commission has opened an investigation into the beleaguered industrial giant’s disclosure that a miscalculation in its insurance unit could cost the company $15 billion.

GE stunned investors last week when it revealed it had underestimated how much it would cost to pay for the care of people who lived longer than projected, creating a shortfall in its reserves that would take years to make up.

The SEC is looking into that issue as well as how the company recognized revenue from long-term service agreements for the maintenance of power plants, jet engines and other industrial equipment it sells, GE said.

The company is cooperating with the investigation, company officials said.

“It’s very early days” of the investigation, Chief Financial Officer Jamie Miller said on a conference call with analysts. “There’s nothing here I’m overly concerned about.”

The SEC declined to comment.

The investigation is just the latest hit to the touchstone company, which has been part of the daily lives of average Americans since its 1892 founding in Schenectady, N.Y. After decades under the leadership of Jeffrey Immelt, who retired earlier last year, and Jack Welch, a legend in corporate management circles, the company’s new chief executive is struggling to chart a new course.

Since taking the reins, John Flannery has put in motion a broad overhaul that includes plans to revamp the board of directors and sell off business units, including its storied lighting business that dates back to its founder, inventor Thomas Edison.

He grounded the company’s corporate jet fleet, reduced the number of cars issued to executives and announced a review of its compensation policies.

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Earlier this year, he said the company would slice its dividend in half, only the second time GE has done so since the Great Depression. GE has also announced that it would cut 12,000 jobs in its electric power division.

But GE’s financial woes have repeatedly disappointed investors. Its stock price fell more than 40 percent over the last year as it struggled to conserve cash and revive its lagging profits.

On Wednesday, the company reported a $10 billion loss in the fourth quarter, compared with a profit of $3.48 billion a year earlier, in part to deal with the shortfall in its long-term insurance business.

“GE needs to hit 2018 targets on cost cuts, asset sales and improved earnings and cash flow. We will look for progress before becoming more positive,” Jim Corridore, equity analyst at CFRA, said in a research note.

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