GE chief signals appetite for media assets
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Jeffrey Immelt has declared his interest in buying media assets in a sign that a slumping economy has not shaken General Electric’s confidence in its television and film business, NBC Universal.
Media stocks have plunged this year amid concern the financial crisis will weigh heavily on companies dependent on advertising revenue and consumer spending.
In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Immelt, GE chief executive, said the company had the resources to capitalise on bargains as it wades through the downturn.
“There are going to be some opportunities in media consolidation, in infrastructure, oil and gas, aviation,” Mr Immelt said. “And my hope is that we can play in some of those as time goes on.”
Mr Immelt’s stated willingness to expand his media business comes as Vivendi, which owns 20 per cent of NBCU, neared its annual window to exercise a put option that would force GE to buy back the stake.
In spite of repeated statements by GE executives that they would not sell NBCU, some investors and industry insiders remain convinced that Vivendi might trigger the put just to force GE’s hand on its commitment to the media company.
They reason that GE would rather sell all of NBCU than tie up cash to a business that does not fit within the conglomerate’s sprawling portfolio of industrial and financial businesses.
“They are, and continue to be, great partners,” GE said, declining to comment on Vivendi’s put.
People familiar with the company’s plans told the Financial Times last year that GE would decide NBCU’s fate only after this summer’s Beijing Olympics, whose US TV rights were owned by the network. The games delivered, helping lift NBCU’s third-quarter profit by 10 per cent.
NBCU was part of the consortium that bought the Weather Channel this year.
GE sold $15bn in preferred and common stock last month to keep its triple A debt ratings and help its financial arm replace any funding sources lost during the deepening credit crisis. As the financial crisis subsides and markets stabilise, the company might use some of the stockpiled cash for acquisitions.
Mr Immelt has said he aims to limit the financial arm, GE Capital, to about 40 per cent of the company’s total profits. GE Capital’s share could decline further if the company’s investments in infrastructure and media businesses accelerate.
People close to Vivendi and GE said the two companies’ estimated value of NBC Universal remained far apart, complicating either an exercise of the put option or even a bid for a larger stake.
A person close to the French group says the 20 per cent stake could command an $8bn price. One banker countered: “You could barely get to $6bn.”
Jean-Bernard Lévy, chief executive of Vivendi, told the FT earlier this year that it was not a short-term seller of the stake, but added: “One day we will probably decide to exit.”
Vivendi declined comment, but it is understood to be reluctant to sell at current depressed valuations.
Vivendi’s annual exercise period runs from November 15 through the first Friday of December, between 2007 and 2016, according to Bernstein Research. GE in turn owns a call option to force a repurchase of Vivendi’s stake in May of each year between 2011 and 2017 with a floor price of $8.3bn. That price increases each year from May 2009 based on the US Consumer Price Index, according to Vivendi.
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