UPDATE 1-GE sees 2013 sales up despite 'fiscal cliff' fears

Mon Dec 17, 2012 6:44pm EST

* Sees revenue flat to up 5 pct in 2013

* Sees higher earnings, does not say by how much

* 'Fiscal cliff' stand-off hurting demand -CEO

* Shares down slightly in after-hours trading

By Ernest Scheyder

NEW YORK, Dec 17 (Reuters) - General Electric Co expects revenue to be flat or up as much as 5 percent next year, though its top executive said on Monday that worries about the "fiscal cliff" had hurt demand in the closing months of 2012.

In the face of an uncertain economy, the largest U.S. conglomerate said it expects to increase profit next year, but did not say by how much. Rather, Chief Executive Jeff Immelt repeated his goal of continuing to boost operating margins.

"There's still a lot of macroeconomic volatility and we're running our business at a lower cost rate," he told analysts, adding that the company planned "some restructuring" as it continues to cut costs and is not counting on any improvement in the European economy any time soon.

GE expects organic revenue at its industrial units - a measure that excludes exchange-rate fluctuations and any acquisitions or unit sales - to grow by 2 to 6 percent next year, with weak sales of wind turbines partially offsetting growth in other areas.

The world's largest maker of jet engines and electric turbines aims to boost profit margins by 70 basis points in 2013, an increase that would raise its operating margin to about 15.8 percent of sales.

GE forecast double-digit percentage profit growth at businesses that make equipment used in oil and gas production, railroad locomotives and appliances and lighting. Profit at its GE Capital finance arm, which it continues to scale back, could be flat to up by a single-digit percentage.

Immelt warned investors at a meeting in New York that the slow progress of negotiations in Washington to head off a year-end "fiscal cliff" of higher taxes and government spending cuts - which could push the economy into recession next year - was taking a toll on business.

"There's no doubt the fiscal uncertainty slowed activity in the fourth quarter of the year," said Immelt, who is an adviser to President Barack Obama on the economy and also a member of a coalition of top U.S. CEOs pushing for a debt deal.

"We're cautious about next year," he told a small group of reporters. "But we've got a very well-run business."

GE's 2012 industrial revenue, a measure that excludes the company's sizable finance business, will be up about 8 percent, below the 10 percent target Immelt discussed with investors in September.

"We're going to have a cost hedge in our plan in case there's more disruption next year," he said. "I think that's the only smart way to do it."

GE shares fell 0.5 percent to $21.82 in after-hours trading.

Over the past week, several of GE's peers have laid out 2013 forecasts. United Technologies Corp said on Thursday it expects profit to rise about 13 percent next year, while Honeywell International Inc forecast a rise of roughly 8.5 percent and 3M Co looked for growth of 8 percent.

'GAS IS GOOD'

GE has been working to scale back its GE Capital arm, the finance unit that became its Achilles heel during the credit crisis and which has about $75 billion worth of mortgages, commercial real estate investments and other assets it wants to sell.

As it has pulled back from finance, GE has stepped up its presence in the energy industry with a series of acquisitions of companies that make equipment used in oil and gas production.

"We just think gas is good. We think it's the place to play both in terms of the U.S. and the rest of the world," Immelt told investors in the Rockefeller Center theater where the "Saturday Night Live" television show is broadcast.

GE's 2011 sale of a majority stake in NBC Universal, which produces that program, cleared the way for its big push into oil and gas.

Immelt reiterated his recent statements that GE will not pursue large acquisitions, but is instead focused on deals worth $1 billion to $3 billion. However, he allowed that it was possible the company could "creep up" to $4 billion for the right target.

The Fairfield, Connecticut-based company no longer provides numeric, per-share profit forecasts, a practice it abandoned during the recession.

Analysts, on average, expect GE's earnings to rise about 12 percent to $1.69 per share next year, excluding one-time items, with revenue increasing 2 percent to $150.57 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

GE shares have risen about 30 percent over the past year, sharply outpacing the 11 percent rise in the Dow Jones industrial average. GE is the sole remaining original member of that widely watched group of U.S. stocks.

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