GE's Immelt Sees Globalization Shift as Protectionism Grows

  • CEO highlights international business in shareholder letter
  • Acquisitions helping manufacturer grow in markets worldwide

GE CEO Immelt: We Don’t Think Walls Are Good Ideas

General Electric Co.’s Jeffrey Immelt still sees a role for large multinational companies, even as President Donald Trump and a new wave of world leaders reject fundamental tenets of cross-border commerce.

“There is deep skepticism toward the ideas that powered economic expansion for a generation, with concepts like innovation, productivity and globalization being challenged and protectionism on the rise,” GE’s chief executive officer said in his annual shareholder letter. “We still see substantial opportunity to grow around the world by investing, operating and building relationships in the countries where we do business.”

Immelt highlighted GE’s investments in factories around the world while making a case for the company’s pro-globalization outlook. While Immelt didn’t mention Trump by name in the 32-page letter dated Feb. 24 and released Monday, the CEO addressed many of the themes important to the new administration, including U.S. manufacturing employment, trade policy and corporate tax overhaul.

GE is trying to walk a fine line, making a case for the type of globalization that has been central to the company’s growth in recent years, and also positioning itself as “a proud American company” that’s creating jobs in the U.S. While Boston-based GE’s sales have shifted from about 70 percent in the U.S. in 2000 to less than half today, Immelt noted that it exports more than $20 billion a year, keeping domestic factories churning.

“GE is a global company today and in the future,” he said.

Tax Fight

This month, GE joined a number of large exporters, including Boeing Co. and Dow Chemical Co., to form a coalition in support of a congressional proposal to tax imports to the U.S., a central component of a possible overhaul of corporate tariffs. In Monday’s letter, Immelt said current policy “favors imports, not exports,” creating an uneven playing field that benefits companies outsourcing work overseas.

Opponents of the plan, which include automakers and retailers such as Target Corp., say it would generate a disproportionate burden and force them to pass along costs to consumers.

While Immelt is optimistic about 2017, a sluggish economy in recent years has led GE to invest heavily in internal operations to improve productivity. The company is expanding 3-D printing operations to enhance manufacturing and building a digital division that will help customers get more value out of equipment. The company expects its new Predix operating system to generate $1 billion of orders this year, while overall digital software orders may top $5 billion, Immelt said.

GE fell 0.5 percent to $30.03 at 9:35 a.m. Monday in New York. The shares declined 4.5 percent this year through Friday, compared with a 5.7 percent gain in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.

Sales Target

GE aims to grow organic sales 3 percent to 5 percent in each of the next two years while expanding margins by 100 basis points annually, he said. GE is also “on track to hit strong double-digit EPS growth despite a volatile global economy.”

Immelt noted the progress GE has made integrating assets acquired from Alstom SA, as well as the benefits that the pending merger with Baker Hughes Inc. will give GE’s oil and gas business in a challenging market. GE has about $10 billion of unallocated capital that can be used for acquisitions or buybacks, Immelt said. But after a number of major deals in recent years, he said “the GE portfolio is pretty well set.”

Acquisitions have helped GE build a global manufacturing presence, enabling the company to gain access to a variety of international markets. Immelt highlighted the importance of China, saying “every company and country needs a strategy to engage the second-biggest economy on Earth.”

GE’s vast operations enable it to build locally and obtain financing in many markets, making the company less reliant on trade deals to remain competitive, Immelt said. That trend will become more important as the nature of globalization shifts toward one favoring local investment and jobs, he said.

“We see many giving up on globalization; that means more for us,” Immelt said. “Are we witnessing the end of globalization? I don’t think so.”

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