By Aman Shah
(Reuters) - General Electric Co's credit card unit filed for an initial public offering on Thursday, the first step in the conglomerate's long-awaited plan to exit retail finance and reduce its dependence on its financing arm.
GE announced plans in November to spin off the North American retail finance business into a publicly traded company, which bankers estimated could be worth roughly $16 billion to $18 billion.
GE will look to raise as much as $3.5 billion from the IPO and seek a valuation of $20 billion to $25 billion for the unit, Bloomberg reported, citing people with knowledge of the matter.
A spokesman for the company declined to comment on the report.
GE has been reducing its reliance on GE Capital, its financing arm, which at one point accounted for almost half of the company's profit. The unit's rising funding costs during the 2008 financial crisis nearly sank the entire company.
With the spinout of the retail lending business, GE hopes to focus on its industrial divisions and better compete with rivals such as Honeywell International Inc and United Technologies Corp, which have smaller financing arms.
"We see the exit from North America retail finance as a net positive for GE over time, provided the price is right and capital is deployed wisely," Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Steven Winoker wrote in a note.
The unit, which makes credit card loans to consumers in the United States and Canada, will operate under the name Synchrony Financial, GE said in a statement.
Synchrony will use proceeds from the offering to repay debt, increase capital and invest in liquid assets, according to the IPO filing. (http://r.reuters.com/hez57v)
GE said in November that it would float up to 20 percent of the credit card business through the IPO, with a target to complete the exit in 2015.
The business traces its roots to 1932 when GE began providing financing to consumers to help meet demand for its appliances.
It is now the largest provider of private label credit cards in the United States based on purchase volume and receivables, according to the filing.
The cards are offered through major retailers and brands including Wal-Mart Stores Inc, Lowe's Cos Inc and Ethan Allen Interiors Inc.
The business had 62 million active accounts, financed about $94 billion of sales and reported net earnings of $2 billion for 2013, according to the filing.
"(The IPO) will be a museum piece for the institutions that invest in it," said John Fitzgibbon, founder of IPO-tracking website IPOScoop.com.
Investors will view the IPO favorably, given the business is well-established and profitable, Fitzgibbon said.
Spanish lender Banco Santander SA took its U.S. consumer-finance arm Santander USA Holding Inc public in January, with shares rising as much as 10 percent in their debut.
Goldman Sachs & Co, JP Morgan, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley are lead underwriters for the IPO, according to the filing.
Synchrony, which filed a $100 million placeholder with the regulator on Thursday, said it expects to list its stock under the symbol "SYF" on the New York Stock Exchange.
The filing did not reveal how many shares its parent would sell and the price.
LAST MAJOR ACTION
GE Capital posted revenue of about $44 billion last year. It was named a systemically risky financial institution last July by the U.S. Financial Stability Oversight Council.
The designation, commonly known as "Too Big To Fail", in effect guaranteed more regulatory oversight of GE Capital.
GE has said the spinoff would be the "last major action" in its efforts to reduce GE Capital's share of the company's profit to 30 percent.
"We think that provided management keeps their share buyback promises, investors will favor the higher industrial earnings weighting over time," Bernstein's Winoker wrote in the note.
The amount of money a company says it plans to raise in its first IPO filings is used to calculate registration fees. The final size of the IPO could be different.
GE shares were down 1.2 percent at $25.44 in afternoon trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
(Additional reporting by Sagarika Jaisinghani and Lewis Krauskopf; Editing by Savio D'Souza, Sriraj Kalluvila and Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)