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Should We Avoid Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) Now?

Jim Chanos, one of the world’s most well-known short sellers, has chosen a new target for his short position. It is Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT), the largest maker of construction and mining equipment in the world. Right after the news, Caterpillar dropped more than 2% to below $86 per share.

Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT)Should we listen to Jim Chanos and avoid Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT) now? Or is Caterpillar still a good long-term investment opportunity? Let’s take a closer look.

Declining global mining capital expenditures

There are several reasons for Jim Chanos to be bearish about Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT). First is the decline in the overall commodities market, lead by the slow down of the Chinese construction boom. He commented that the mining industry has gone through the super-cycle, resulting in significant growth in global mining capital expenditures.

In the period of 1990-2001, global mining capital expenditures had grown at around 8% per year, and in the last eleven years, the growth rate has shot up to as high as 24%, from only $14 billion to $145 billion. He estimated that around a third of the global mining capital expenditures were coming from equipment. That was a huge number for Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT).

Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT) has significant exposure to the global mining industry. In 2012, it generated around $21.16 billion, accounting for 32.7% of the total revenue, from the Resource Industries segment. This segment is also the largest profit contributor, with $4.32 billion in 2012 segment profit, representing as much as 45.2% of the total operating profit.

The company’s board also expects that global mining capital expenditures would decline, but gradually, at only 10%-15% per year. However, Jim Chanos does not think that the reversion to the industry’s historical mean would be smooth.

Caterpillar acquisition accounting

Moreover, Jim Chanos expressed his worries about how Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT) accounted for its acquisitions, including the huge $7.6 billion buyout of the mining equipment firm Bucyrus. Dating back to 2010, Caterpillar paid as much as 23 times earnings for Bucyrus, anticipating that it would benefit from “the rapid growth in China, India, Brazil and other emerging markets”.

Recently, the company had to write off $580 million on an $886 million acquisition of ERA Mining Machinery in China. For Chanos, it was a sign for caution. He said: “Whenever you see a company claim earnings synergies when buying another company and then write down its net assets to below zero, you have to say either that company never earned money or you’re being overly aggressive in your acquisition accounting. You know that’s one of my favorites. Looking at companies that write down net tangible assets to zero or negative when they buy a company.”

As of March 2013, goodwill and intangible assets still accounted for 58.6% of its total equity.

How about Joy Global Inc. (NYSE:JOY) and Deere?

At $86.60 per share, Caterpillar is worth $56.9 billion on the market. The market values the company at around 9 times its trailing EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization). Compared to its peers Joy Global Inc. (NYSE:JOY) and Deere & Company (NYSE:DE), Caterpillar does not seem to be so cheap.

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