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NEWS ANALYSIS

GE's US$500b market wipeout is like erasing Facebook

New York

ON Aug 28, 2000, Apple's hottest product was a candy-coloured computer, Donald Trump was a New York real estate mogul and General Electric Co was worth some US$600 billion.

Apple and Trump have gone on to greater things. GE? It's on the verge of a staggering milestone: a half-trillion dollars in market value wiped out since that all-time high 18 years ago. The iconic American corporation is now worth just under US$100 billion, its stock at around US$11, and investors are signalling they don't expect things to get better.

The collapse - an 81 per cent drop from the peak - is all the more startling as it comes amid record-setting market gains. Apple Inc recently became the first US-based company to top US$1 trillion in market value,

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followed shortly thereafter by Amazon.com Inc.

Even longtime GE observers, bears among them, are stunned. "Wow," said Steve Tusa, a JPMorgan Chase & Co analyst who has followed GE since 2001, when asked about the half-trillion figure.

GE's fall from that mid-2000 heyday - the legendary Jack Welch was nearing the end of his tenure then - has come in fits and starts. The 9/11 terrorist attack badly hurt its jet-engine and insurance businesses, for instance. But the last couple of years have been particularly brutal.

The shares fell 45 per cent in 2017 after cash-flow shortages and weak sales in its power unit, among other factors. They've crashed another 35 per cent so far this year. The decline earned the century-old company an unwelcome boot from the Dow Jones Industrial Average in June, leading to yet more selling.

In mid-September, GE took a sharp dive when new questions arose over its critical power segment business. Investors were spooked by GE's acknowledgment that its flagship gas turbine was suffering from an "oxidation issue" that prompted a customer to temporarily shut down two US power plants.

GE has identified a fix and says the situation is under control. But last week's slide shows how "there's very little wiggle room for incrementally bad news", Mr Tusa said.

Amid the carnage, GE is remaking itself, unloading many of its oldest businesses, including Thomas Edison's light-bulb operations. John Flannery, who took over as CEO from Jeffrey Immelt last year, has cut the dividend and plans to narrow GE's focus to only aviation, power generation and renewable energy. He's also looking to shrink the bulk of the remaining finance operations, a legacy from Mr Welch and Mr Immelt, that took a massive hit in the 2008 financial crisis.

None of this has rejuvenated the stock, and shortsellers have been piling on in anticipation of further drops. GE has become the third-largest short among industrial conglomerates, behind Toshiba and 3M, according to S3 Analytics.

"Where does this bottom?" said Deane Dray, an analyst with RBC Capital Markets. "That's what everyone is trying to figure out." BLOOMBERG