NEW YORK – An improving outlook for the U.S. economy and signs of stabilization in Europe sent General Electric shares to their highest level since 2008 despite modest quarterly results.
"Orders in the U.S. were the strongest in some time," CEO Jeff Immelt said on a conference call with investors following the release of the company's second-quarter results Friday.
Immelt said the U.S. economic environment remained "mixed," but his outlook marked an improvement from recent quarters, when he expressed more caution about the U.S. market.
GE, based in Fairfield, Conn., has a broad view of the global economy because it sells a wide variety of industrial equipment and appliances around the world, including jet engines, medical diagnostic equipment, oil and gas drilling equipment and washing machines.
GE's net income rose 6 percent in the first half of the year, and the improved outlook raised hopes of even better growth in the second half.
GE shares rose $1.09, or 4.6 percent, to $24.72 by midday. They went as high as $24.95, the highest intraday level since September of 2008, when the shares were in the midst of a plunge brought on by the financial crisis.
The recovery in GE shares is not quite complete — shares would have to rise another 15 percent to reach the roughly $30 per share they were trading at before the financial crisis hit.
But the improvement in the company's share price represents confidence in the company's transformation to a more focused industrial conglomerate. GE is dramatically shrinking its banking division — the giant financial services arm that threatened to pull the company apart during the financial crisis — and shed media and other non-industrial businesses.
"A GE back to its core roots is a very compelling investment story," wrote Scott Davis, an analyst at Barclays. "This is the GE we grew up with."
At the same time, the company has beefed up divisions that industrial equipment such as gas-fired turbines and oil and gas drilling equipment.
GE earned $3.13 billion in the second quarter, up from $3.11 billion a year earlier. On a per share basis, the company earned 30 cents, up from 29 cents. Revenue fell 4 percent, to $35.12 billion from $36.5 billion.
Adjusted to reflect earnings from continuing operations, GE earned 36 cents per share. That's 2 cents less than adjusted earnings last year, but one cent better than analysts polled by FactSet had expected.
GE said orders for new equipment and services grew 20 percent in the U.S. during the quarter. In Europe, orders grew 2 percent after falling 17 percent in the first quarter, helped by oil and gas orders in the North Sea and aviation equipment and services.
"In the GE world at least (Europe) seems to have stabilized," Immelt said.
Emerging markets remained strong, he said.
The company's total orders for new business rose $7 billion, or 4 percent, last quarter to a record $223 billion. Orders for oil and gas drilling equipment and energy management equipment showed especially strong growth; orders for transportation and power and water equipment fell.
Profit margins for industrial segments rose 0.5 percent in the quarter and remain on track to post growth of 0.7 percent for the full year, GE said. GE Capital earnings fell 9 percent for the year.
Christian Mayes, an analyst at Edward Jones, called the quarter "ho-hum" but noticed some encouraging signs for GE. Revenue slipped at the company's power and water division, which sells and services gas-fired turbines, wind turbines, and water treatment equipment, but the division's profits returned to more normal levels after a first quarter he called "a mess."
He was also encouraged by the improved outlook for the U.S., echoing recent comments by other industrial companies, and by GE's push to further improve profit margins later this year.
"The back half of the year should be better for GE," he said.