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Caterpillar Inc. (CAT-N) reported a 58-percent rise in quarterly earnings that blew away Wall Street expectations on record sales of construction and mining equipment, and projected strong growth for 2012.
The strength seen by Caterpillar, a bellwether for global spending and credit conditions, could be seen as a much-needed boost to those concerned about consumer confidence and sovereign debt. The company's forecasts have long been seen as one of the more telling indicators of future growth or malaise.
Caterpillar's results cap a record 2011 in terms of revenue and profits, and it posted its biggest yearly growth rate for sales and income since 1947. The company has been a leading name in a U.S. industrial sector that enjoyed a widespread rebound in 2011.
Acquisitions, increased demand for mining equipment, high commodity prices and sales growth in construction machinery and parts supported Caterpillar during the year. Price increases and higher inventories also fueled the performance.
Investors reacted positively to the report, with shares up 3.2 percent at $112.57, about $4 shy of a 52-week high set in May.
Peoria, Illinois-based Caterpillar said it would continue to break records in 2012, with profit expected to rise 25 percent to $9.25 a share and revenue projected to increase between 13 percent and 20 percent. The outlook outpaced analyst expectations and is based on a forecast for higher sales for all geographic regions and business segments except marine engines.
"We're expecting 2012 to be another year of good growth," Caterpillar Chief Executive Doug Oberhelman said in a press release. "We have to be prepared for recovery in the developed world beyond 2012 and continued growth in emerging markets."
The company said the U.S. economy will continue to experience slow growth. Meanwhile, China is moderating, and Latin America growth could slow down.
It estimated that the eurozone debt crisis could lead to negative growth in the region during the first two quarters of 2012 but "it is unlikely to trigger a worldwide recession," and sees improvement there by the second half of the year.
The company said tax expenses are the biggest challenge in 2012 due to its geographic sales mix and regulations.
Caterpillar said construction markets in the United States and Europe remain "depressed," contrasting the strong growth taking place in emerging regions. Still, the company sees buyers in developed markets snapping up new machinery in order to replace outdated equipment.
During a conference call, the company said it expects to "finally" see some growth in U.S. construction spending, but it will remain relatively low.
The company is gaining market share in many key regions -- including China -- putting further pressure on the company's production capacity. In some cases, customers are on waiting lists that span several years because of these constraints. Buyers of new large trucks are being quoted delivery times into 2014, for instance.
Meeting demand will also lead to increased costs as the company scrambles to add capacity in key regions, particularly to meet demand for mining equipment.
Caterpillar will invest about $4 billion on capital expenditures in 2012, compared with $2.6 billion in 2011.
Caterpillar said it added 14,000 employees in 2011 in order to meet growing demand, 6,500 of which were added in the United States. The company said it exported nearly $20 billion worth of goods in 2011, representing a third of its total revenue for the year.
Caterpillar spokesman Jim Dugan said the company anticipates adding more employees in 2012 as it opens or expands facilities.
PROFITS, SALES UP
The company posted net income for the fourth quarter of $1.55 billion, or $2.32 per share, compared with $968 million, or $1.47 per share, a year ago. That result was 59 cents above the analysts' average estimate of $1.73 a share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Sales rose 35 percent to $17.24 billion, above Wall Street estimates of $16.05 billion.
Caterpillar reported growth in all three of its product sectors -- construction equipment, such as bulldozers; resource equipment needed for activities like mining; and power systems, including engines. The resource equipment segment was the fastest-growing unit in terms of sales, but profit growth in the construction business was more robust.
It also is seeing steady demand for after-market parts needed for equipment already in use.
Increased expenses related to production volume, capacity expansion and incentive compensation added about $450 million worth of costs in the fourth quarter alone. The company also spent money on its Caterpillar Japan restructuring and integrating new business.