How Caterpillar and Intel Led the Dow to 17,000

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) passed 17,000 for the first time today in another symbolic milestone for the market. One major driver today was the Department of Labor's non-farm payroll report: It showed that 288,000 jobs were created last month, and that the unemployment rate fell to 6.1%.

But throughout 2014, two stocks have stood out as top performers, pushing the Dow to new highs. Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) and Intel (NASDAQ: INTC  ) have led the market most of the year, and both companies are hoping they can continue gains as financial performance improves.

^DJITR Chart

^DJITR data by YCharts.

How Caterpillar topped the Dow
Caterpillar came into 2014 with fairly low expectations, because the mining industry has slowed down dramatically from a post-recession boom, and construction spending wasn't expected to pick up much, either.

Big equipment orders in energy and construction are starting to pick up. Source: Caterpillar.

But when first-quarter results were released, the mood from Caterpillar itself changed. Management said construction sales were expected to grow 10%, and energy and transportation would post a solid 5% gain, as well. Mining is still struggling, and revenue overall is expected to be flat in 2014 as a result; but the profit outlook was bumped up by $0.25, to $5.55 per share, and the rally was on. 

Caterpillar will be one of the macro winners if the economy continues to pick up pace, particularly in the housing industry. So, keep an eye on economic growth and new home construction, because those two factors will likely drive the stock for the rest of the year.

Intel charges back
Intel is also not going to be a huge growth stock in 2014, but it's performing far better than expected coming into the year.

Wearable devices like this baby monitor are what Intel is betting its future on. Source: Intel.

The decline of the PC was priced into Intel's stock and, with little exposure to smartphones and tablets, the company was left with flat to slightly declining revenue. But in mid-June, Intel said that PC sales were better than expected, and increased second-quarter revenue guidance by $700 million, to $13.7 billion, plus or minus $300 million. For the full year, management expects light growth versus a previous expectation of flat revenue.

Long term, there's also upside when Intel releases new chips in the second half of 2014 that will include system on a chip capabilities, lower energy consumption, and boost performance for mobile devices. If Intel can gain a foothold in the Internet of Things early on, it will be a huge win in a new market. I think there's a good chance it can.

Winning more mobile devices will be key for the stock's performance for the rest of the year but right now Intel is doing well because its operations are slowly improving, something we should expect more of as the year goes on.

Preparing for the second half of 2014
Caterpillar and Intel led the Dow in the first half of the year, and they've now increased expectations for investors. For both to continue to lead, they'll need to perform operationally; but I'd rather bet on these two highly profitable companies than take a flier on a higher-growth stock. Long term, those profits matter and this year is proving that.

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