Why IBM, Exxon Mobil, and Caterpillar Can't Keep Up With the Dow

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) has hit new highs repeated over the course of the year and has risen almost 19% since the beginning of the year. Add in the impact of dividends, and the Dow's total return has eclipsed the 20% mark. But for Dow components IBM (NYSE: IBM  ) and Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) , 2013 has been a nightmare, with both stocks down so far on the year. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM  ) has fallen over the past year, and Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) hasn't managed a positive total return going back 18 months. What's holding all of these stocks back, and do they stand a chance of eventually sharing in the Dow's bull market returns?

For IBM, a combination of factors explains the stock's 6% drop in 2013. Poor industry trends have weighed on the company's revenue, which in turn has pulled down the company's earnings recently. On one hand, customers have been reluctant to spend huge amounts on IT upgrades, as efforts to maintain profit margins have led many businesses to hold off on major investments in favor of actions with more immediate payoffs, such as share repurchases. Yet at the same time, even with relatively healthy demand among businesses for enterprise-based cloud-computing products and services, strong competition from just about every major technology company in the industry has forced IBM to fight for business. Without a return to revenue growth, IBM could find it hard to begin a lasting turnaround.

Caterpillar, which is down 3.5% so far this year, has one overarching reason for its bad fortune lately: China. A slowdown in Chinese growth hurt Caterpillar's construction-equipment business, with sluggish infrastructure and building activity leading customers to delay buying replacements for their existing equipment. Then, during the spring, the plunge in commodity prices choked off mining-sector demand, further complicating Caterpillar's future prospects. Caterpillar bought mining-equipment maker Bucyrus three years ago, and unless prices improve, that deal will end up looking like one of the most ill-timed ever.

ExxonMobil is up slightly in 2013, but it has fallen over the past year. Production woes plague the oil giant, as Exxon struggles to replace aging wells with new opportunities. Despite hopes that the Arctic might open up new horizons for ExxonMobil, the challenge of constantly finding and acquiring assets has taken its toll on Exxon's growth. Moreover, with oil recently having fallen below the $100 per barrel mark, even keeping production volume constant might not be enough to sustain revenue in dollar terms if prices stay lower.

Finally, Intel has rebounded this year, but it's still below its mid-2012 levels. The company has just recently started to map out its plan to get more heavily into the mobile market, with new chip designs with low power consumption profiles. Intel has a two-pronged approach, helping some tablets attain almost PC-level performance while targeting other smartphones at the lower-end of the pricing spectrum to try to cash in on emerging-market demand. Investors are hopeful that Intel has already seen its worst, but the chipmaker will have to follow through on its promise in order to convince skeptical investors who've been burned before by Intel's failed initiatives.

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