By Alwyn Scott and Kate Duguid
NEW YORK (Reuters) - General Electric Co <GE.N> will sell assets with "urgency" to reduce its high debt, Chief Executive Officer Larry Culp said on Monday, as GE shares tumbled as much as 10 percent and the cost of insuring its debt hit a six-year high.
Culp is facing tough questions about GE's financial strength and profit outlook after being named CEO on Oct. 1 with a mandate to turn around the 126-year-old conglomerate.
"We have no higher priority right now than bringing leverage levels down," Culp told CNBC. "We have plenty of opportunity to do that through asset sales."
Culp said GE also was trying to get "a better grounding in reality" in its ailing power unit.
Last month, GE posted a quarterly loss of $22.8 billion (17.7 billion pounds), cut its annual dividend to just 4 cents a share and told investors it was facing a deepening federal accounting probe. The power unit lost $631 million in the quarter and GE wrote down $22 billion in goodwill because expected future profits in the unit now appear unlikely.
Since then, some analysts have questioned GE's liquidity and slashed their target prices for the stock. Culp said he thought the power business was "getting close" to bottoming out after more than a year of declining revenue and profit.
Some GE bonds are now trading far below par, and its five-year credit default swap rose to a bid price of 176.5 basis points and the upfront price <GE5YUSAX=MG> <GE5YUSAX=R> to 3.4 percent on Monday, according to data from IHS Markit and Refinitiv.
The spike in credit default swap costs comes as short positions in GE debt have risen to $958 million from $238 million in December 2017. The most shorted debt security is the 5 percent perpetual bond <369604BQ5=>, which has no maturity date, and has seen short positions more than double to $442 million from mid-September. Analysts at Credit Suisse and CFRA cut price their stock targets prices on Monday from $12 to $10 and $9, respectively, citing uncertainly about GE's earnings and margins, and potential liabilities and writedowns at its insurance and power units. JPMorgan analyst Stephen Tusa last week cut his target to $6 from $10.
"We do not think the stock 'works' until confidence is restored," Credit Suisse analyst John Walsh wrote on Monday.
GE shares closed down 6.9 percent at $7.99 on the New York Stock Exchange after falling as low as $7.72.
GE had $114 billion in debt at the end of the third quarter, 3.7 times its equity and more than four times the industry average debt-to-equity ratio of 0.77, Refinitiv data shows. High debt levels can increase a company's risk of default.
Former GE CEO John Flannery announced $20 billion in planned asset sales a year ago, but many are either still in the works or have not yielded enough cash to bring debt in line with peers.
GE's largest deal so far, merging its railroad locomotive unit with Wabtec Corp <WAB.N>, netted just $2.9 billion in proceeds and 9.9 percent of the combined company.
Culp said GE was considering potential deals involving its "crown jewel" aviation unit, which shares technology with power, but such moves were not a high priority.
"We wouldn't say 'no' for all time to various options," but breaking the unit out, monetizing it or raising equity were "not high on our list" of strategic moves, Culp said.
(Reporting by Alwyn Scott and Kate Duguid in New York and Rachit Vats in Bengaluru; Editing by Dan Grebler and Tom Brown)