Dividend Aristocrats In Focus: Caterpillar Inc.

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Dividend Aristocrats In Focus: Caterpillar Inc.


Updated on February 25th, 2021 by Bob Ciura

Each year, we individually review each of the Dividend Aristocrats, a group of 65 stocks in the S&P 500 Index that have raised their dividends for at least 25 consecutive years.

To make it on the list of Dividend Aristocrats, a company must possess a profitable business model with a valuable brand, global competitive advantages, and the ability to withstand recessions. This is why the Dividend Aristocrats can continue to raise their dividends in difficult years, such as the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.

With this in mind, we have created a list of all 65 Dividend Aristocrats. You can download your free copy of the Dividend Aristocrats list, along with important financial metrics such as price-to-earnings ratios and dividend yields, by clicking on the link below:

 

Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) joined the Dividend Aristocrats list in 2019. Even more impressive is the fact that Caterpillar operates in a highly cyclical industry, which normally prevents companies from attaining long histories of annual dividend increases.

However, Caterpillar’s management team has proven its commitment to returning cash to shareholders even through the inevitable ebbs and flows of the business over the years. Caterpillar also has durable competitive advantages that allow it to raise its dividend each year, even through downturns in the global economy.

Business Overview

Caterpillar was founded in 1925, and today competes in the manufacturing and selling of construction and mining equipment. The company also manufactures ancillary industrial products such as diesel engines and gas turbines. Caterpillar is a large-cap stock with a market capitalization of ~$120 billion, making it one of the largest industrial stocks in the world.

Industrial manufacturers struggled in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, which suppressed global economic activity. Caterpillar is also specifically exposed to the energy and mining industries which have also struggled due to weak commodity prices.

On January 29th, 2021 Caterpillar reported Q4 and full year 2020 results for the period ending December 31st, 2020. For the quarter, the company reported revenue of $11.2 billion, representing a -15% decline compared to Q4 2019. Construction Industries, Resource Industries and Energy & Transportation posted declines of -10%, -9% and -19% respectively.

The Energy & Transportation segment struggled the most in the fourth quarter.

Source: Investor Presentation

This led to weak overall results for Caterpillar. Fourth-quarter adjusted earnings-per-share equaled $2.12 for the fourth quarter, compared to $2.71 in the same period the previous year.

For the year, Caterpillar generated revenue of $41.7 billion, down-22% compared to 2019. The decline was driven by lower end-user demand and dealers reducing their inventories by $2.9 billion in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Adjusted earnings-per-share equaled $6.56 versus $11.40 in 2019.

Growth Prospects

Caterpillar is closely tied to global economic growth, as well as commodity prices. Its customers extract resources from the earth as well as build and construct a wide variety of structures, so economic growth is key to fund that development. This leads to some fairly extreme cyclicality in Caterpillar’s results, which then sees the stock swing wildly between extremes of the sentiment scale.

The coronavirus pandemic weighed heavily on the company last year, but investors are hoping that the global economic recovery continues in 2021. This would be the best opportunity for Caterpillar’s fundamentals to improve.

Further, Caterpillar’s own cost-cutting measures have driven operating margins higher for years and while the bulk of the gains may have been realized, we see further potential for expense reductions to positively boost earnings.

We expect earnings to improve for 2021, but still come in well below the pre-pandemic peak. We are forecasting $7.50 in earnings-per-share for 2021 to go along with an 8% growth rate over the intermediate term. This reflects both some caution with regard to the cyclical nature of the business and Caterpillar’s ability to bounce back when demand returns.

Competitive Advantages & Recession Performance

Competitive advantages in industrial applications can be difficult given that for most applications, there are competitors that make largely similar products. However, Caterpillar has built itself into one of the largest players in lucrative end markets such as construction, energy, and mining over the years.

Related: See our favorite construction stocks analyzed in detail.

Its global presence affords it some diversification of revenue by segment and industry, but also geographically, which has served it well in recent years. Its scale also gives it the ability to leverage down variable costs per unit, which boosts margins.

However, Caterpillar is certainly not immune from recessions as slowdowns in the global economy are generally accompanied by lower commodity prices and slowing construction spending. These factors took a major toll on Caterpillar’s bottom line during the Great Recession, as earnings were devastated, if only briefly.

Caterpillar’s earnings-per-share during the Great Recession are below:

While Caterpillar certainly felt the pain from the Great Recession, its earnings rebounded fairly quickly and it reclaimed its pre-recession earnings-per-share number in 2011. Caterpillar experienced a milder, yet still significant, decline in earnings-per-share last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, it is clear that Caterpillar is exposed to recessions due to the economic bellwether nature of the heavy machinery industry.

Valuation & Expected Returns

Caterpillar’s current price-to-earnings ratio is 29.5, based on 2021 expected EPS of $7.50. This is a very elevated valuation level for Caterpillar. Since 2011, shares of Caterpillar have traded with an average P/E ratio of about 15. We believe 15 is a reasonable fair value estimate for Caterpillar, given its cyclical business and vulnerability to recessions.

Periods of cyclicality are normal for Caterpillar when it comes to the valuation, and today, we are certainly seeing a swing higher in the price of the stock relative to earnings. This could significantly reduce future returns; if the P/E multiple declines from 29.5 to 15 over the next five years, it would lower annual returns by 12.7% per year in that time frame.

The other negative aspect of stocks with elevated valuations is that they also have lower dividend yields. As Caterpillar’s share price has soared in the past year, its dividend yield has declined to 1.9%. Dividends and earnings-per-share growth (expected at 8% per year) will add to shareholder returns, but the extreme overvaluation of the stock is a high hurdle to clear.

Based upon the factors discussed above, we see total returns of -2.8% per year. Negative expected returns makes the stock a sell in our view on the basis of overvaluation.

Final Thoughts

Caterpillar stock continues its impressive rise, having increased over 70% in the past year as of this writing. At the same time, the company struggled mightily last year, with revenue and earnings-per-share declining significantly due to the coronavirus pandemic. It appears investors have priced in a speedy recovery in 2021 and beyond, but this makes the stock somewhat risky in our view.

Caterpillar has an industry-leading brand and a positive long-term growth outlook, but we feel the stock has simply become overpriced due to the massive rally over the past year. With a weak expected future return, we rate the stock a sell. Investors should wait for a significant decline in the share price.

Further reading: See analysis on our favorite agriculture stocks.

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