Caterpillar Slashes Staff to Cut Costs

Following its conference-call revelation that Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) was on a "cost lockdown binge," the heavy equipment manufacturer is now shedding more operations, announcing it will be closing its Pulaski, Va. mining equipment facility and consolidating its operations with one it has in Pennsylvania.

The Pulaski operations and subsequent loss of 240 jobs are the third to make the move to Houston, Penn. this year, with production from its Tazewell, Va. making the shift early on and Beckley, W.Va. following it there by mid-2014.

The latest closure comes on the heels of its Oct. 29 announcement that Caterpillar was closing the former Bucyrus International manufacturing operations in Kilgore, Texas by the end of the year, while also closing facilities near Toronto and Sudbury, Canada; Summerville, S.C.; and Owatonna, Minn.

Overall, Cat has slashed its employment rolls by 13,000 people as the global drop in demand for mining equipment forces the equipment maker to resort to temporary layoffs and permanent plant closures.

Earlier this year, Joy Global (NYSE: JOY  ) said all of its operations were under review because of a "very significant" change in outlook in the Americas, where a number of coal mine site closures have upended the industry. It forecast that revenues could tumble another 20% next year as orders plunged 36% and prices in industrial metals and bulk commodities fell between 20% and 40%.

These are the two major mining equipment manufacturers, and their dreary outlook and response is driving results in areas investors might not expect. Ritchie Bros. Auctioneers (NYSE: RBA  ) , the world's largest auctioneer of industrial, construction, and agricultural machinery and equipment, reported third-quarter results earlier this month showing GAAP earnings doubling year over year. Even on an adjusted basis, those earnings were 65% higher.

Although its gross auction proceeds shrank 7% from last year to almost $790 million, that had more to do with a single, large consignment in the year ago period than a less conducive environment this time around. Over the first nine months of 2013, Richie Bros. Auctioneers sold more than $987 million of equipment, trucks, and other assets to online buyers alone, which represented 36% of its gross auction proceeds. And just last month, the auctioneer reported it held its largest two-day event, breaking all sorts of company records as more than 5,850 equipment items and trucks were sold in the public auction for more than $90 million.

If you're looking for a way to profit from the collapse of the mining industry as China's economy cools, coal continues its retreat in the U.S. and Australia, and commodity prices tumble, industrial auctions might be the way to go. Caterpillar's cost-cutting program is not over, as it continually adjusts to worsening conditions in the market. It's already twice revamped its outlook for the year and there doesn't appear to be any catalysts for improvement for the immediate future.

The heavy equipment maker had hoped 2013 would be the year things would turn around after last year's poor performance, but recovery has been pushed out to 2014 and beyond. But with Caterpillar's stock trading at just 14 times estimated earnings and at less than its sales, I think the worst of the malaise has been priced in. I find Caterpillar's current lows an interesting level at which to consider it as an investment.

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