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Caterpillar Sales Slide Simply Awful

Paul Ausick

We can’t say we weren’t warned. When Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) reported third-quarter results in October, the company slashed its guidance for the second time this year. When the company released its November retail sales report Thursday morning, the predictions look even more like they will come true.

In October Caterpillar projected a 17% year-over-year drop in sales. About 75% of the decline was expected to come from the company's mining equipment group, which was forecast to see a drop of 40% in revenues. The power systems and construction industries groups were forecast to see revenue declines of about 5% each.

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In the November update released Thursday morning, Caterpillar noted that power systems' sales were down 5% for the three-month period ending in November. The company did not reveal mining equipment or construction industries data for the three-month period, so perhaps there is some hope that the numbers will be better than forecast in October.

By geographic region, retail sales fell the most in Asia/Pacific (24% in the three-month period) and the least in the United States (2%). Overall, retail sales are down 12% for the period.

The problem Caterpillar has been fighting all year is high inventory levels in its distribution warehouses. In its second-quarter results announcement, the company framed the issue this way:

While dealer machine inventory is low by historic standards, dealers are utilizing inventory from our product distribution centers and are positioned to reduce inventory even further. As a result, we expect dealer machine inventory to decline about $1.5 to $2 billion in the second half of 2013 and end the year about $3.5 billion lower than year-end 2012. That means that we are underselling end-user demand this year, and it sets us up for better sales in 2014.

Perhaps the stock price moved only slightly after this announcement because all the bad news has been priced in already, and investors are willing to wait at least through the first quarter of next year for an improvement in the stock price. Over the past 12 months, Caterpillar's share price is down just 3.6%, but since peaking in February shares are down 11%.

Caterpillar stock traded down about 0.7% in the late morning on Thursday, at $87.58 in a 52-week range of $79.49 to $99.70.

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