(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The stock market’s blind optimism is colliding with industrial CEOs’ realism.
Caterpillar Inc. and Honeywell International Inc. rounded out a busy week of earnings for the manufacturing sector on Friday, with both companies pointing to a continuing slide in growth in 2020 that flies in the face of expectations for a swift rebound following the signing of the U.S.-China trade deal.
“We expect continued global uncertainty” in 2020, Caterpillar CEO Jim Umpleby said in a statement. That will push demand among end-users of its equipment down as much as 9% and encourage dealers to continue chipping away at existing inventory stockpiles rather than replenish them. The company predicted a decline in residential and non-residential construction markets in North America and continued weakness in oil and gas, offset somewhat by a pickup in mining equipment, calls that have wide-reaching implications for much of the industrial sector. Sales in China may decline as much as 5%, Chief Financial Officer Andrew Bonfield told Bloomberg News. Honeywell’s earnings guidance was in line with analysts’ estimates, but the range was fairly wide for the company, with a 40-cent swing between the best and worst case. Honeywell is “remaining cautious” on the macroeconomic outlook and the risks to its businesses that are among the first to reflect changes in activity. It warned sales may be flat in 2020 after backing out the impact of M&A and currency swings.
Honeywell has a history of being conservative, but you’ve heard comments like this from a variety of industrial CEOs over the past few weeks, including CSX Corp.’s Jim Foote, W.W. Grainger Inc.’s DG Macpherson, DuPont de Nemours Inc.’s Marc Doyle and 3M Co.’s Mike Roman. Most are expecting the growth environment to remain lackluster – and for some markets, to get a bit worse – in the first half of the year before improving in the back end. But for many companies, that “improvement” has more to do with easier comparisons than any true demand spike. We’ve also seen this movie before, and forecasts for a back-end-weighted recovery rarely play out as hoped.
Heading into the year, CEOs listed the risk of a recession as their top concern for 2020, according to a global Conference Board survey. While the trade deal improved sentiment, corporate profits need to pick back up to drive increased spending, note Bloomberg Economists Andrew Husby and Yelena Shulyatyeva. There are a variety of complicating factors on the horizon, including the U.S. presidential election and potentially the ramifications of the burgeoning coronavirus epidemic. And don’t forget, U.S. tariffs remain in place on some $360 billion of Chinese goods.
For now, business investment remains muted, with orders for non-military equipment falling 0.9% in December, excluding aircraft, according to data from the Commerce Department released this week. Arguably, one benefit of elevated stock prices is that buybacks are untenable and that may drive more CEOs to put their money to work on capital investments once the uncertainty clears. Honeywell plans to do both, buying back a minimum of 1% of its shares and spending as much much as $150 million on capital expenditures in 2020. But for industrial companies as a group, earnings gains appear to rely more heavily on continued cost-cutting and productivity improvements rather than true fundamental growth.
Caterpillar, which is currently predicting a second straight year-over-year decline in profit, said Friday it has a $200 million placeholder for strategic restructuring and is “prepared to respond quickly to any positive or negative changes in customer demand.” There has also been a troubling increase in below-the-line benefits and earnings adjustments, even at the typically clean Honeywell. Below-the-line items are expected to be as much as a $250 million benefit in 2020, compared with a $57 million drag in 2019, the company said. This impacts perceived quality, notes Gordon Haskett analyst John Inch.
And yet investors seem only mildly concerned. After initially sliding as much as 3.2%, Caterpillar shares were at times little changed and were down only about 1.5% as of mid-morning. Expectations were higher at Honeywell and that stock was down about 2%, but it’s still within spitting distance of an all-time high hit earlier this month. Investors may have the luxury of being more optimistic than CEOs, but I’d listen to the guys who have to make the actual decisions when it comes to hiring and spending. And those guys (yes, they’re all men) are still waving the yellow flag of caution.
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Brooke Sutherland is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and industrial companies. She previously wrote an M&A column for Bloomberg News.
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