updated 10/16/2009 3:14:26 PM ET 2009-10-16T19:14:26

General Electric Co.'s troubled financial unit dragged down third-quarter earnings 44 percent, overshadowing gains in divisions that make power plant turbines and household appliances.

The results from one of the world's largest companies show the spotty strength of the global economy. While "signs of life" are emerging — profits are up for some industrial goods and services — consumers and businesses are still reeling from large numbers of defaults in credit cards and mortgages.

"The global environment is improving, but we are expecting a gradual recovery," GE Chief Executive Jeff Immelt cautioned on Friday after the company posted its results.

GE's quarterly profit fell to $2.4 billion, or 23 cents per share, hurt by sharply lower earnings at its GE Capital arm, which loans money for businesses ranging from credit cards to shopping centers. A year earlier, the company earned $4.3 billion, or 43 cents a share.

GE's overall revenue dropped 20 percent to $37.8 billion, coming up short of what Wall Street was looking for.

GE Capital reported an 87-percent drop in profit. But without a big tax gain, the finance arm would have posted a significant loss. Its commercial real estate unit lost $538 million and profits declined across GE Capital's remaining businesses, including credit cards. The unit has overall losses and asset value write-downs of $9.3 billion this year.

GE's industrial businesses, however, showed some modest improvement in the third quarter, which runs from July through September.

Profits edged up 4 percent, helped by higher prices for power plant turbines and cost-cutting in the company's household appliance business

In a positive sign, the total value of equipment orders climbed $741 million from the second quarter. GE also did a brisk business fixing up turbines and jet engines that its customers already own.

Still, the company's industrial sales declined 13 percent from 2008, an indication that demand is still down.

GE is reshaping itself as it tries to move beyond a tough year. It is shrinking its dependence on profits from GE Capital, beefing up industrial business, and exploring ways to spin off assets like NBC Universal.

The company is relying on its industrial side — whose divisions build dishwashers, sonogram machines, locomotives and oil pipeline equipment — to help it rebuild profits following the recession, which began in late 2007 and has burdened the U.S. economy with huge job losses, a tight credit market and sharply lower home values across much of the nation.

GE is also in talks to sell a sizable part of its NBC Universal entertainment division to cable company Comcast Corp.

Immelt reiterated Friday that GE is exploring "strategic partnerships" among its possible options for NBC, but did not confirm any talks. He said the company had no immediate need for the cash such a deal could bring in.

(Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

NBC's fate is partly up to the French media conglomerate Vivendi, which owns a 20 percent stake. Its annual window to decide to dispose of its share begins next month, and there is speculation it wants to unload NBC.

GE Chief Financial Officer Keith Sherin said in an interview that Vivendi has told GE it is "actively considering" whether to exit the partnership. That is different from in past years, he said.

NBC Universal spans the NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks; cable channels such as Bravo and CNBC; the Universal Pictures movie studio and Universal theme parks. The cable networks have been among the strongest performers. Meanwhile the NBC network is fourth in the ratings, Universal Pictures has had so-so box office results, and the recession has lowered attendance at Universal theme parks.

NBC has suffered from a decline in advertising, but the unit posted a bigger profit last quarter. Most of that was from a gain from the sale of a third of GE's ownership in A&E network.

The past year has been a painful one for GE, as it slashed its dividend for the first time since the Great Depression to save cash and lost its coveted top credit rating.

Shares of Fairfield, Conn.-based GE fell 73 cents, or nearly 4.3 percent, to $16.06.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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