By Lewis Krauskopf
(Reuters) - As General Electric Co starts spinning off its consumer credit card business, some on Wall Street are hoping that the U.S. industrial conglomerate will eventually slim down its GE Capital finance unit even further.
Commercial real estate, which GE Capital expects to make up 10 percent to 15 percent of its portfolio in the future, stands as another major potential area for GE to abandon, analysts and investors said.
GE's finance presence has been under scrutiny ever since the company's share price plunged after the 2008 credit crisis. Thursday's earnings report from GE presents the next chance for analysts to address the company's strategy.
"From my investor's point of view, the more they look like an industrial company, the better off they are," said Andrew Meister, an equity research analyst at Thrivent Investment Management.
Meister and others say that GE's finance presence makes for a more complex company that forces its shares to trade at a discount to manufacturing rivals.
GE trades at 15 times forward earnings estimates compared with 16.7 times for United Technologies Corp and 16.3 times for Honeywell International Inc , according to Thomson Reuters data. Financial companies such as CIT Group , Wells Fargo and Bank of America trade between 12 to 13.5 times forward earnings estimates.
The future of GE Capital is central to a larger issue facing GE and other conglomerates: What mix of businesses makes the most sense? Barclays analyst Scott Davis raised the topic for GE last month in a research note with the provocative title: "GE: Structurally Broken Story?"
"The overwhelming evidence, in our view, suggests that GE should not be in the banking business; the appliance business; the lighting business; datacenters, or any other non-core, non-infrastructure based business," Davis wrote of the company, which makes large equipment including jet engines, gas turbines, and MRI machines.
To be sure, GE has responded to the concerns by taking steps to reduce its exposure to finance, with the spin-off of its North American retail finance business being the most significant move.
The unit -- which bankers and analysts have valued at anywhere from $16 billion to $30 billion -- filed for an IPO last month under the name Synchrony Financial, part of a plan GE laid out in November for separating the business entirely in 2015. It's not clear when this year the spinoff will happen.
Synchrony's divestiture should put GE at least close to Chief Executive Jeff Immelt's goal of cutting the company earnings contribution from GE Capital from about 45 percent last year to 30 percent by 2016.
The bulk of the remaining GE Capital business will focus on lending to small and mid-sized firms, which allows GE "to keep their pulse on various industrial end markets," said Brian Langenberg, an analyst with Langenberg & Co.
GE also finances sales of products in GE's main industrial areas, such as aviation, healthcare and energy, with about 5 percent of GE Capital that now funds GE's own products.
In commercial real estate, GE Capital does plan to sell off assets in which it holds an equity stake such as buildings. But the company still sees providing financing for commercial real estate properties including refinancings and loans for new buildings as a core part of GE Capital.
"It's an asset class we know very well, and it's a solid returning business," GE Capital spokesman Russell Wilkerson said, noting the company's 40-year history in such lending.
Not everyone agrees with the fit.
"The one (main) part that GE just doesn't seem aligned with other people is GE still wants to stay in the real estate debt book," said Shannon O'Callaghan, an analyst at Nomura.
Said Daniel Holland, an analyst with Morningstar: "You have to think really hard about a good reason for them owning that business."
(Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf; editing by Andrew Hay)