Caterpillar Has A China Problem

| About: Caterpillar Inc. (CAT)

Needless to say, 2013 has been a challenging year for Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT). Shares are down 4% while the market has rallied significantly to new heights, and management has called the bottom incorrectly several times with repeated disappointments and guidance cuts. In some ways, Caterpillar has been a victim of circumstances. With falling metal prices and over-levered miners, they have had to cut mining activities and capital expenditures, crushing demand for CAT machinery. Caterpillar's management does deserve blame for not seeing the massive slowdown, guiding to it, and preparing for it, but it cannot be blamed for fluctuations in commodity prices.

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Now, management has guided to a flat performance in 2014 with sales within 5% of 2013 after a 17% drop from 2012 (full guidance available here). This suggests EPS of about $5.50, plus or minus $0.40 and a forward multiple of 15.6x. As you would expect, mining will be the weakest segment at Caterpillar after falling 40% this year. I had been targeting a 10-15% decline next year, which will erase stabilization and mild improvement at the construction and power units.

With miners, particularly those involved with gold, cutting capital plans next year, it is not surprising to see CAT's mining supply unit the weakest. Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE:FCX) has promised shareholders a $1.9 billion cap-ex reduction while gold miners like Newcrest and Barrick Gold (NYSE:ABX) have suspended projects after taking multi-billion write-downs. Barrick is mothballing its Pascua-Lama project, laying off hundreds of workers, after a dilutive secondary. Even diversified giants like Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO) and BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP) have promised restraint in their capital plans until metal prices start to show sustained improvement.

All of this signals problems for Caterpillar, and the company has been fighting to maintain share and simply suffer along with the market. To lose share in an eroding market would be catastrophic for results. This is my new concern. For years, China had been the savior of machinery equipment firms like CAT and Joy Global (NYSE:JOY) because the country was consuming so much raw material (boosting prices and thereby cap-ex) without having any companies that could supply machinery of similar quality. As a consequence, CAT got the benefit of the new market without any additional competition. However, this might be changing.

Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh has said his firm has begun to buy equipment from Chinese firms and that the quality has been "much higher" than from traditional suppliers (remarks available here). No Chinese firm yet has the scale or brand of Caterpillar, but if some are beginning to churn out equipment of similar or better quality, CAT will have to fight more aggressively for share, especially as many of these firms enjoy significant cost advantages, operating solely in China.

With China a critical end-market and the importance of currying favor with the regime, miners may very well be interested in purchasing equipment from Chinese firms. For Caterpillar, the market is growing increasingly competitive just at the wrong time: when sales are in sharp decline. Lost share or a price war would only exacerbate the company's growth problem. Now, it should not surprise anyone that China is catching up on quality as that is really a matter of time and effort in studying best practices and existing machines.

Moreover, Caterpillar saw this day coming as the company made an $800 million purchase of a Chinese equipment maker, ERA Mining Machinery, last year. Clearly, CAT wanted to gain a production foothold in China and saw a manufacturer whose product quality was worth owning. Of course, this deal has not worked out well for CAT with the revelation that the books were cooked forcing a $580 million write-down (details available here). While CAT clearly targeted the wrong firm, it is equal clear that CAT saw China-made equipment it wanted in its portfolio. It is not surprising then that other Chinese firms are delivering high quality products.

After this news, I am more concerned about Caterpillar than I was before. Given management's track record of over-optimism and tremendous structural weakness in the mining sector, I thought the bottom half of 2014 guidance was more likely, suggesting EPS in the $5.25-$5.50 range. However, if we see price degradation or lost market share, mining declines will be worse, pushing EPS even lower. Equally important, over the long run beyond 2014, CAT's rebound will inevitably be slower as it fends off fierce competition from China. At $86 Caterpillar is appreciably over-priced, and I would be a buyer at no more than 13x earnings or $71. The machinery space is too bad, and investors would be far better owning a high quality miner like Freeport or non-mining machinery company like Deere (NYSE:DE).

Disclosure: I am long FCX. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it (other than from Seeking Alpha). I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.

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