There have been few better ways to track the recent pessimism about the global growth story than the declining value of shares of Caterpillar Inc., the company whose heavy equipment has powered construction from Asia to Europe and back home to its base in the U.S. Midwest. The stock is off nearly 30 per cent from its late-February highs, even as the broader market has declined just slightly over the period.
Deere & Co. also makes big machines, but it hasn't suffered nearly so: Its shares are off about 10 per cent in the last five months. The farm equipment maker has benefited because the global agriculture boom story has longer legs these days than the idea of non-stop Asian industrial growth.
The result of this disparate price action is that Caterpillar is now cheaper than Deere on an earnings multiple basis. But, importantly, neither is expensive. And that means they're excellent picks for investors of two kinds: Those who believe fears of a global recession are overblown, and those whose time horizons are long enough not to worry about the next year or two.
Caterpillar, which released earnings Wednesday, was unable to assuage investor concerns despite beating expectations for revenue and profits. While the company raised its guidance for this year's earnings, it also shaved $2-billion (U.S.) off the top of the range of its expected revenues (now merely $68-billion to $70-billion.) The shares seesawed before settling in at $82.60, a 1.4 per cent gain.
The slight pullback on revenue expectations may just be management conservatism, argues Vance Edelson of Morgan Stanley & Co., who has an "overweight" rating on the stock. "We believe Caterpillar is favourably positioned for most global economic scenarios, with significant leverage should economic conditions improve, and more stability than is commonly believed should the economy falter."
Morgan Stanley sees U.S. construction "gaining steam" and emerging markets providing a greater boost. The company, via acquisition, has a strong position in mining equipment, and it has another division that will benefit when natural gas activity recovers. What are the potential trouble spots? Well, Chinese growth has been sluggish, Caterpillar said Wednesday, and the company's inventory there is growing. The company plans to cut prices and export some of the excess equipment to get inventories in line.
Yet while many investors can't discuss Caterpillar without talking about China, the country accounts for just 5 per cent of the company's sales, notes Robert McCarthy of R.W. Baird & Co. (Mr. McCarthy has a an "outperform" rating on the stock and a $135 price target.)
Caterpillar now trades for about 10 times trailing earnings and eight times forward earnings, a discount to the broader market that "is unwarranted," Mr. Edelson of Morgan Stanley believes. The company offers a dividend yield of roughly 2.5 per cent.
Dividend hunters will also find a lot to like in Deere. The Illinois-based company has benefited in recent months from its geographic focus. While Caterpillar gets two-thirds of its revenue outside North America, Deere books nearly two-thirds of its sales in the U.S. and Canada.
That's not to say it's ignoring the rest of the world. In fact, the company may be positioned to experience its greatest period of international growth in the years after the current global muddle gets worked out. A recent cover story in Bloomberg Businessweek, inelegantly titled "American Badass," traces Deere's international initiatives and concludes "John Deere's big green profit machines are conquering the world."
Deere, which won't have its next earnings announcement until mid-August, is subject to the cycles of the agriculture sector and the commodities it produces. It is also, as Janney Capital Markets analyst Ryan Connors noted in a May report, "without question one of the world's greatest companies, boasting best-in-class products, the industry's deepest and most productive distribution channel, an iconic brand and fiercely loyal customers, and a well-earned reputation for being ahead of the curve on innovation."
Mr. Connors' concerns about a cyclical contraction in agriculture cause him to put a "neutral" rating and an $80 fair value price on the shares, about $6 more than their current price.
The shares, however, are more than $15 off their 52-week high, and are priced at about 10 times prior-year earnings and nine times forward earnings, per Standard & Poor's CapitalIQ. And, like Caterpillar, Deere's dividend yield is about 2.5 per cent. The shakiness of the global economy is indeed cause for concern. In the long run, however, Caterpillar and Deere are going nowhere – except upward and onward.