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On Wednesday at their annual meeting, Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) executives laid out a growth outlook for the next five years. The headline piqued my interest because it seemed aggressive. Cat CEO James Owens announced that sales will grow to $50 billion in 2010 and earnings per share will grow at a compund annual rate of 15%-20% between 2005 and 2010.

For a fairly large, mature business like Caterpillar, as much as 20% annual EPS growth over a five year period sounded very optimistic to me, but upon doing a little further number crunching I realized that the plan really wasn't all that aggressive after all. Current estimates for 2006 and 2007 imply earnings growth of 31% this year and 13% next year. This comes on the heals of a 40% surge in 2005, the first year of the period in question.

So, from 2005 through 2007, earnings are expected to grow 28% per year on average. In order to hit the midpoint of the 15-20% annual goal for the entire six year period, profits in 2008-2010 will only have to average about 7% annually.

Given this outlook, are CAT shares a buy at the current $68 per share price tag? Let's assume the midpoint of the growth plan is achieved (17.5%). That puts 2010 earnings at about $7.30 per share. Let's assume a modest 12 P/E on those profits, given that we are talking about a cyclical heavy machinery company. We get an implied share price of $87 four years from now, about a 30% gain from current levels.

Not a horrible return, but not as good as you might expect based on the headlines we saw. This also assumes that the global economy remains strong for many more years. A global recession will likely hurt very cyclical businesses like the one Caterpillar dominates.

Source: Caterpillar Sets Growth Goals (CAT)