Banks are hungry for earning assets, but General Electric is poised to offer up its consumer business to the masses.
GE Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt said this week that the company is committed to shrinking its GE Capital unit and is mulling an initial public offering for some of its business lines. As Immelt sees it, the market is wide open, while banks are still closed up.
"The capital markets are very receptive to IPOs," Immelt said at the Electrical Products Group Conference in Florida on Wednesday. "Particularly in financial services, putting things for sale with the assumption that a bank would buy it has been a fool's journey. So the only way you have been able to think about this is by thinking about IPOs."
Immelt did not single out the consumer business in discussing spin-offs, but he said the company wanted to sharpen its focus on its commercial business. Its consumer business had $139 billion in assets at the end of 2012, with about $50 billion of that made up by private label credit cards.
Signaling an IPO of a business unit is often a semi-veiled attempt at hunting for a buyer. Such a move announces to the market that a company is looking to make some cash and announces to observers who may have long salivated over a business line that this is the chance to snag it.
For instance, several observers recently suggested Royal Bank of Scotland was posturing when it announced it would take 20% to 25% of its Citizens Financial Group public in the next couple of years.
The sentiment within the financial industry and on Wall Street is that GE is sincere in its claim that a bank buyer is unlikely. The deal could be huge $20 billion to $30 billion, by one estimate and only a handful of banks could afford it. However, it would take require a bruising fight with regulators.
"It would surprise me if Immelt were so brash to dismiss this time the possibility of a bank buyer without checking it out," one observer said
GE has been exploring the divestiture of its credit card business since 2007. In the summer of 2008, Keith Sherin, the company's chief financial officer, said the sale was going slower than expected. The business was strong, but GE was struggling to "find someone with $30 billion of funding." GE backed off the sale when the financial sector melted down in the fall of 2008.
The capital markets are stronger now, but regulators are more resistant to letting big banks get bigger because of concerns about too big to fail. Bank regulators would never approve the deal, several observers said.
"I honestly don't see a buyer emerging; I wouldn't say it is impossible, but it is a very small universe," another observer said.
If it wasn't so large, observers say the portfolio would be a perfect fit for a bank. In fact, one of the key hurdles that GE will have to face in attempting a spin-off will be figuring out how it would be funded. The new company would likely seek to start or buy a depository institution so that it would have access to steady and low-cost deposits.
That would be painful for big banks the likes of Wells Fargo (WFC) to watch.
Wells officials declined to comment for this story, but Chairman and CEO John Stumpf said this week that he is looking to acquire assets; the company already holds 10% of the country's deposits and is legally barred from getting any larger on that side of the balance sheet. He has a strong interest in growing Wells' wealth management business, but he recently lamented shortcomings in its credit card business.
"All of our retail households have a credit card; they just don't have them with us," he said Tuesday at the Barclays Americas Select Franchise Conference.