WASHINGTON: General Electric has agreed to pay a US$200 million penalty to settle charges for misleading investors over how it was generating earnings in its power and insurance businesses, the US Securities and Exchange Commission said on Wednesday (Dec 9).
GE's shares were down 1.2 per cent at US$11.25 in post-market trade following the news.
Securities regulators opened a probe into the company's accounting practices following a 2017 surprise accounting charge of US$6.2 billion by the company, which said it would need to set aside US$15 billion for long-term care insurance payouts at the time.
The inquiry, which initially focused on long-term service agreements for maintenance of power plants, jet engines and other industrial equipment, was later expanded to include GE's review of its insurance business.
As part of the settlement, GE has also agreed to report to the SEC for a one-year period about compliance related to its power business and GE Capital's run-off insurance operations.
A GE representative said the settlement has brought the SEC's investigation to a close, and no corrections or revisions to its financial statements are required.
The representative said it was in the best interests of GE and its shareholders to settle, adding the conglomerate has taken a number of steps to enhance its disclosures and internal controls since the time period covered by the investigation.
Most of GE's insurance operations were spun off in Genworth Financial more than a decade ago, but it retained some of the legacy long-term care policies and also reinsures policies written by other insurers.
"It is never a proud moment for a company to have to settle an SEC accounting investigation and pay a civil fine, but we do consider this settlement to be a favourable outcome for GE," said Deane Dray, an analyst at RBC Capital Markets.
"It removes the overhang of the investigation," said Dray, adding that the SEC's fine was within the ballpark of the US$100 million reserve GE set aside. "We believe investors recognise that these legacy accounting issues literally date back two CEOs ago."
The SEC was also investigating revenue recognition accounting at the company's power business, which led to a US$22 billion goodwill write-off in 2018.
In 2017 and 2018, the company's stock price fell almost 75 per cent as challenges in its power and insurance businesses were disclosed to the public, the SEC said.
The company misled investors by failing to explain that one-quarter of its GE Power profits in 2016 and nearly half in the first three quarters of 2017 stemmed from reductions in its prior cost estimates, the SEC said.
The order also finds that GE failed to tell investors that its reported increase in current industrial cash collections was coming at the expense of cash in future years, the SEC said.
"Public companies must provide an accurate picture of their business. It's really very simple," SEC enforcement chief Stephanie Avakian told reporters during a press briefing on Wednesday.
"You must speak accurately, about the manner in which you are meeting financial targets and about trends and uncertainties, you are aware of in your business."
GE, however, said it has neither admitted nor denied any allegations as part of the settlement. The SEC order also makes no allegation that prior period financial statements were misstated, the company said.