Could O'Reilly have been a factor in GE's stock becoming a dim bulb?
EmptyStock in General Electric, once one of the world's most respected companies, has suffered a historic 69% nose dive during the past six months that no one publicly predicted.
With the possible exception of Bill O'Reilly.
The host of Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor" has been advising his sizable audience — ad nauseam — to dump GE shares. In fact, even as stockpickers on CNBC, a GE asset, were recommending GE stock, O'Reilly was saying sell, sell, sell!
It's no secret that O'Reilly has used his top-rated show to attack NBC Universal, especially MSNBC, for years, and talent there hasn't been shy about returning fire.
When he's being kind, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann will refer to O'Reilly as "Billo" or compare him to Ted Baxter. But oftentimes it's something more seething, like "the Sisyphus of morons," or, on several occasions, "the worst person in the world."
O'Reilly has been no less kind to Olbermann, or to NBC Uni topper Jeff Zucker, or to Jeffrey Immelt, the CEO of GE whom O'Reilly has called a "pinhead" and a "despicable human being." But before the Dow swooned and GE shareholders were turned into chumps, O'Reilly lost interest in simply exchanging insults. So he began bashing the stock, and darned if he wasn't right.
"Bill, many months ago you told us about GE and Jeff Immelt," a viewer named Peter wrote in a recent e-mail to O'Reilly. "I know you're not a financial adviser, but I sold my shares. What a blessing."
After O'Reilly read the note on the air, he said: "We knew what would happen to GE, and it has happened. You were smart to listen."
O'Reilly's beef with NBC and MSNBC usually is political, basically accusing its journalists of being as liberal as most of its commentators. As for Immelt, it began as a knock on GE for doing business with Iran while that country allegedly supplied weapons to people who were killing U.S. soldiers.
But his complaints have broadened. Nowadays, any tick down in GE shares is another excuse for O'Reilly to call for Immelt's ouster.
When GE recently cut its dividend, O'Reilly showed a clip of Immelt earlier proclaiming, "We've got the cash flow to pay the dividend." Then O'Reilly laid into the CEO.
"Immelt, because of his incompetence, misled the public, and some people bought GE stock based on his dividend statement," he said. "Some have suggested that's fraud and inducement."
Then he told his audience how far GE shares are down since Immelt replaced Jack Welch in 2001. "Yet he keeps his $20 million job," O'Reilly said. "That adds up to corruption to me."
Asked to respond, NBC Uni and GE declined comment.
Despite the relentless nature of the tirades, there aren't many on Wall Street who suggest O'Reilly has been the cause of GE's free-falling stock. In fact, most experts dismiss it as partisan street theater, and they point out that shares of News Corp., parent of O'Reilly's network, also have been crushed.
The critics (and they are legion; check out OReilly-Sucks.com to get a taste of the vitriol) have a point. But it's also fair to note that News Corp. has outperformed GE during just about any time frame that begins on or after Sept. 7, 2001 — the day Immelt became CEO — and ends with Tuesday's closing bell, even though GE rallied 26% during the past two days.
Since Immelt took over, GE stock has tanked 71%, compared with News Corp.'s 58% loss. So far this year, GE is off 53% to News Corp.'s 32% decline.
So detractors beware: As long as News Corp. keeps outperforming GE, criticism of O'Reilly and his stockpicking prowess will ring hollow.
Paul Bond can be reached at paul.bond@THR.com.