Caterpillar Sees Signs of Recovery--4th Update

By Andrew Tangel Features Dow Jones Newswires

Caterpillar Inc. is gaining steam after years of sluggish demand for its giant yellow trucks and heavy equipment.

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The equipment giant reported its first quarterly sales increase since 2015 for the three-month period ended March 31, and boosted its outlook for this year on signs of recovery in some long-struggling construction and mining markets.

The results mark an unexpected victory for Chief Executive Jim Umpleby, who since taking over on Jan. 1 has pushed ahead with cuts to Caterpillar's workforce and manufacturing footprint and dealt with a raid by federal agents on the company's headquarters in Peoria, Ill.

Caterpillar said it expects to take in up to $41 billion in revenue this year, up from previous projections of up to $39 billion. Caterpillar reported $38.5 billion in revenue in 2016, its fourth straight year of declining sales. On Monday, Caterpillar reported a measure of retail sales of its machines world-wide had increased for the first time since November 2012.

"There are just a lot of positive things happening in our segments that have not happened for quite a while," Chief Financial Officer Brad Halverson said in an interview. "We're feeling positive about things -- much better than we felt a year ago for sure."

Caterpillar shares rose more than 7.5% Tuesday afternoon to $104.10.

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Rising commodity prices and mining activity in much of the world outside the Americas helped drive a 15% revenue increase for Caterpillar's resource-industries segment in the first quarter, thanks largely to aftermarket part sales. Revenue in Caterpillar's construction segment also increased 1% the first quarter, boosted by sales in Asia/Pacific and Latin America. The company has recently cited strong demand in China.

Caterpillar was sent reeling in recent years as commodity prices slumped and global mining activity slowed. The downturn consumed the final years of Doug Oberhelman's tenure as chairman and CEO before he retired at the end of March.

Caterpillar executives said Tuesday that many of their main markets remain depressed.

"There continues to be uncertainty across the globe, potential for volatility in commodity prices, and weakness in key markets," Mr. Umpleby said. He called his first quarter as chief executive "eventful."

Amy Campbell, director of investor relations, said Caterpillar could double the number large mining trucks it sells this year to about 140; but that would still be far below the company's average sales rate for those machines.

Despite positive signals abroad, Caterpillar reported a 7% decline in construction sales in North America. Caterpillar cited a glut of used equipment on the market and "weak infrastructure development." Executives have said that even if President Donald Trump succeeds in his plan to inject $1 trillion into public-works projects, the boost in infrastructure spending might not translate into new business for Caterpillar until next year.

Restructuring costs are expected to jump to $1.25 billion this year, up from projections of $750 million previously, as Caterpillar closes factories in Aurora, Ill., and Gosselies, Belgium. Its workforce continues to shrink along with its global manufacturing footprint. Caterpillar's full-time workforce declined to 95,300 employees at the end of the first quarter, from 101,400 a year earlier.

Mr. Halverson didn't rule out further closures and said the company would pay close attention to costs. The multiple rounds of cuts have "been really hard on us and our employees," he said.

In a call with analysts, Mr. Umpleby offered no new insights into the federal government's escalating criminal investigation of the company's tax strategy, one of its Swiss subsidiaries and export filings.

On March 2, agents from the Department of Commerce, Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s inspector general raided Caterpillar's headquarters and two nearby facilities. Executives have said the company was surprised by the search warrant, noting Caterpillar's cooperation with the investigation.

"If we find something that violates our values and our code of conduct we will take appropriate action," Mr. Umpleby said.

Mr. Halverson, in the interview, declined to elaborate.

Overall, Caterpillar reported a profit of $192 million or 32 cents a share for the first quarter, compared with $271 million or 46 cents a share a year ago. Excluding restructuring costs, the company said it earned $1.28 a share, compared with 64 cents a year ago. Total sales and revenues rose to $9.82 billion from $9.46 billion a year ago.

In addition to higher sales, Caterpillar also expects earnings per-share this year to be $2.10, at the midpoint of its sales outlook, or $3.75 excluding restructuring costs. Previously the company said it expected per-share earnings of $2.30, or $2.90 excluding restructuring costs.

--Joshua Jamerson contributed to this article.

Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 25, 2017 15:14 ET (19:14 GMT)