The Decline Of General Electric Teaches A Cautionary Lesson

In The News...

Thomas Edison's company did something for just the third time in its 125-year history.

General Electric (GE), founded by Edison back in 1892, slashed its dividend payment in half from 96 cents to 48 cents per-share annually. According to CNBC it is the 8th-largest dividend cut in history (the 7 others greater than this occurred during the last recession). When were the other two times GE's longstanding, steady dividend was reduced?


Notice something those two years have in common? The first was during the Great Depression and the other was during the 2008/09 financial recession. Interestingly, those previous dividend cuts occurred near the tail ends of stock market recessions. So this likely says more about the health of GE as a standalone company than it does about the broader economy, considering we are not currently in a recession.

GE shares are down a staggering -42% from the highs back in 2016 and -24% in the past month alone. The value of GE stock has not been this low since 2012.

The lesson learned from GE: I bring this up for a couple reasons. One, because of how rare it is to see a dividend cut of this size. Two, as a reminder of something I wrote about a few weeks ago where I highlighted four ways that investors are overly emotional about investing. One of the ways is that we become too infatuated with a particular company, often because it is where we work. As a result we make risky decisions such as owning too much of that one particular stock or loading up on that stock in a 401k account.

If you worked for GE this type of downside risk is now a reality as the stock price has precipitously fallen some -40% in less than a year. I say this with great sympathy, in the event someone you know works there. But fairly or unfairly this is an example of what the other side looks like, not what we are more prone to hear about with companies like Google, Amazon or Boeing, where share prices have been on fire for the past decade.

It is likely that GE stock will rebound at some point, but how soon will that be? Also, what constitutes the rebound? Will it ever get back above $30 per-share? Hard to say.

A step toward tax reform: In other news, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed its tax reform bill on Thursday. This was expected. What is more unclear is whether there will be enough votes in the Senate to pass this bill, or some iteration of it, given that Republicans only out-seat Democrats by two members in the Senate. The biggest debate forthcoming is whether a repeal of the individual health care mandate will be included in the reform. The mandate was part of the Obamacare plan that took effect in 2010. Repealing it would reduce government spending but also mean millions of Americans would be without health insurance. (I covered some of the proposed tax changes here.)

In The Market...

The S&P 500 slipped -0.1% this past week. Let's look under the hood:

(price data via

Ironically, it was an eventful market week despite the S&P 500 going nowhere. It was a total mixed bag, without much reason. Some growth sectors rose, like Consumer Discretionary, while others fell, like Industrials and Technology. Meanwhile, the more defensive sectors (Utilities, Consumer Staples) gained, while the bond market rebounded in unison as well.

The market rally has leveled off over the past month, as the S&P 500 index has stalled out just shy of 2,600. But because we have seen more volatility at the sector-level that has created some good buy/sell opportunities for us. This past week we were more active than usual in buying and selling investments (listed below), which is how we tend to be when the market is rising. For more on why this is, see the OPINION section below.

In Our Opinion...

I get asked how often we buy and sell investments within client accounts.


The answer is it really depends. We tend to buy an investment and hold it for a number of weeks before selling -- usually between 3 and 8 weeks. Because client accounts own multiple investments our transactions are staggered, which may give the appearance that we are buying/selling more actively than is the case. Larger accounts will have more investments and more transactions than smaller ones. We try to limit transactions on smaller accounts (under $50,000), because each $7.00 buy-or-sell transaction cost is proportionately more impactful on small accounts than larger ones.

When the market trend is rising we are usually more active and when it is volatile or falling we try to be more patient. In a rising market there tend to be ebbs and flows where certain sectors perform better than others, kind of like right now. This lends to being more active. If the market is choppy, patience and poise are key. There are plenty of instances where we will own an investment that has fallen in value, but rather than sell it we will re-evaulate and may hold it for a period of time in anticipation that it will rebound.

What I am describing speaks to our investment process as much as anything. Our process isn't short-term and it isn't really long-term. It is somewhere in between. If we were to rapidly trade investments that would be inefficient to you. If we were to buy-and-hold for years our value would be pretty moot after the initial allocations are made because we would not actually manage anything over time.

In Our Portfolios...

Q&A/Financial Planning...

I encountered a situation rolling over a client's Boeing 401k this week that might apply to you.

When you leave a job or retire, we almost always recommend rolling over your 401k to an IRA. Most of the time 401k rollovers are straightforward. Your pre-tax funds are rolled over into a Traditional IRA. Your Roth 401k funds (if you have them) are rolled over into a Roth IRA.

Simple enough, right? But what if you have "after-tax" funds in your 401k?

Not to be confused with Roth 401k funds, after-tax 401k elections are the contributions you make when you want to contribute more than the $18,000 limit. A lot of company 401k plans allow this, often unbeknownst to the employees. After-tax contributions are similar to Roth 401k contributions in that the funds contributed have already been taxed. But there is one key difference... Your Roth 401k contributions grow tax-free, whereas after-tax 401k contributions grow tax-deferred. This means the after-tax bucket of your 401k contains BOTH pre-tax and post-tax dollars, despite the "after-tax" misnomer.

How this affects your 401k rollover: Your 401k statement may not separate your pre-tax and post-tax dollars relating to your "after-tax" contributions. In fact, your 401k provider may include the entire after-tax bucket of funds in one rollover check, instead of separating that chunk into a tax-deferred rollover amount (the earnings that stem from after-tax contributions) and a tax-free amount (the contributions themselves).

Why this poses a problem: If you do not separate the tax-deferred earnings portion from the tax-free contributions portion, you may accidentally rollover all of it as tax-deferred funds into your Traditional IRA. This means you would end up paying income taxes TWICE on those savings -- once when you originally contributed them into your 401k and again when you withdraw them in retirement!

Why? Because unless you maintain records showing the after-tax money that was contributed years/decades ago, no one else will either. The IRA custodian will assume those withdrawals are all taxable down the road when you begin taking withdrawals. Even if you do have such records, such record-keeping will be frustrating to maintain in future years. Plus, you will constantly have to recalculate what percentage is taxable from what proportion is not (a whole other issue that I won't detail here).

Our client's Boeing statement luckily provided enough detail for me to figure out how much of her total 401k is pre-tax vs. true after-tax, but other 401k plans may not be that helpful. 401k rollovers are pretty easy, but it is important to take inventory of your tax-deferred vs. tax-free money to ensure that the right amounts are rolled over to a Traditional IRA and Roth IRA, respectively.

What's New With Us?

I wrote a new article on our general blog page: How The RMD Laws Could Rock Your 401(k) Or IRA In Retirement. Much of this I discussed a few weeks back in our weekly blog, but I wanted to expand on the Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) rules and provide something informative for non-clients. Feel free to share.

Have a great weekend!

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Brian E Betz, CFP®