General Electric Co.'s strong performance in the fourth quarter raised hopes for the state of the global economy and questions about what GE is going to do with its cash.
Because of its size and global reach, GE has a unique perspective on the state of economies around the world. Its financial performance is considered a bellwether. GE makes refrigerators, CT-scanners, wind turbines, gas turbines and engines for jets and trains. In a new push, it also provides equipment and services to the oil and gas industry.
Here are some questions and answers, edited for clarity, that CEO Jeff Immelt fielded during a conference call with analysts:
QUESTION: It seems that December came in stronger than your initial thoughts back at the annual meeting. Did anything stand out in terms of regions?
RESPONSE (GE CEO Immelt): We saw a little bit of strength in the U.S., I'd say in healthcare and appliances. And then we saw a ton of strength elsewhere. And we saw that in oil and gas and aviation and energy, really across the board. We think the growth markets will continue to grow in 2013 and when I think about the U.S. you've got a slow and steady housing recovery that I think is very positive and then there's still a lot of fiscal uncertainty. And how those blend through into U.S. gross domestic product in 2013, we'll see.
QUESTION: The China growth of close to 20 percent remains pretty strong. Can you talk about how you see that playing out in 2013?
RESPONSE: I'd say we definitely saw China strengthen again at the end of the year. The big drivers of China continue to be healthcare and aviation. We believe that China momentum will likely continue into 2013.
QUESTION: Your merger and acquisition plans have been fairly modest but are there opportunities to redeploy (cash) very quickly into industrial deals or would you look for something else to do with the cash?
RESPONSE: I just don't even want to speculate on how that plays out. We like having a good (dividend) yield. We like the fact that we returned more than $12 billion of cash to shareholders last year (through dividends and share repurchases). We like having a focused approach to acquisitions and if our world changes, we'll come back and talk more about it but right now you shouldn't assume any change.
QUESTION: Your company is going to throw off an awful lot of cash flow over the coming years. Would you be able to reaffirm your commitment of not looking to do big deals?
RESPONSE: It's good for all investors to remember that this company is going to have a ton of cash over the next three years. Right? Between whatever happens with the NBC Universal, between where we think GE Capital is, there is going to be a lot of cash. So let's leave it at that.