By Lisa Lambert and Lewis Krauskopf
(Reuters) - General Electric Co.'s <GE.N> slimmed down financing arm shed its "too big to fail" designation on Wednesday, no longer deemed by the U.S. government "systemically important" and so liable to wreck the economy in the event it runs into distress.
The move by the Financial Stability Oversight Council was the first time a non-banking firm has been freed from the designation, a product of the financial crash that can trigger stricter oversight and requirements to hold more capital.
It was a big victory for GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt, who since April 2015 has reached agreements to unload about $180 billion worth of GE Capital businesses to lessen the industrial conglomerate’s exposure to the finance sector and shed the designation.
The oversight council, made up of all the heads of the major U.S. regulatory agencies, voted unanimously to remove the label it put on GE Capital in 2013, according to the U.S. Treasury. One member was recused.
“The council will remove a designation when that company no longer poses risks to U.S. financial stability,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew said in a statement. “When it identifies a company that could threaten financial stability, it acts; when those risks change, the council also acts."
GE shares were up 1.8 percent in mid-day trading after the announcement, outperforming a 1.4 percent gain for the broader S&P 500 index <.SPX>.
“We have transformed GE by exiting most of financial services, acquiring Alstom, and investing to be a leader in the industrial Internet,” said Immelt in a statement, adding that in the future GE Capital will support the growth of the corporation's industrial business.
Lifting the designation is expected to allow GE Capital to free up cash from its balance sheet and allow parent company GE to deploy it for other uses, particularly share buybacks and its increased focus on aviation and energy.
GE Capital CEO Keith Sherin said on CNBC the company will now save "several hundred millions" in regulatory oversight costs over a year.
In March GE Capital formally asked the government to remove the "too big to fail" label, saying the unit had shrunk to the point where it would not pose a major threat to the country's financial stability if it experienced distress.
Since the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law was passed in 2010, regulators have designated only four non-banks as systemically important. GE Capital was the first to apply to have the designation removed, and has worked for more than a year with the council on how best to address its concerns.
The designation process has come under more scrutiny lately, with a federal judge ruling in March the label does not apply to life insurer MetLife <MET.N>. The U.S. government has appealed the decision, and last week the authors of Dodd-Frank filed briefs supporting it.
American International Group <AIG.N>, the insurer that received a federal bailout of $182 billion during the financial crisis, is also deemed systemically important, along with Prudential Financial Inc. <PRU.N>.
The council's 23-page analysis laying out reasons for rescinding GE Capital's designation will likely not map out how other firms can apply for their own removal, as the FSOC has said its determinations are made on company-specific evaluations taking into account unique risks posed by each company.
The FSOC designated GE Capital because of its "reliance on short-term wholesale funding and its leading position in a number of funding markets," Lew said.
"Since then, GE Capital has made fundamental strategic changes that have resulted in a company that is significantly smaller and safer, with more stable funding," he added.
GE Capital has said it expects to return about $35 billion in dividends to the parent company, subject to regulatory approval, including about $18 billion this year.
Most investors had expected the designation to be lifted, but later this year.
The fact it came earlier than expected could give GE Capital "some upside flexibility on its $18 billion dividend guidance for this year" and "provides a bit more flexibility on industrial balance sheet leverage," said Morgan Stanley analyst Nigel Coe in a note.
"We think investor attention will now naturally turn to potential M&A targets for GE, unless we see a sharp share price pull-back," said Credit Suisse analyst Julian Mitchell in a note, adding that digital and software, aviation and oil and gas acquisitions could be attractive.
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Frances Kerry)