This article was updated on August 8, 2017, and originally published on March 1, 2017.
Donald Trump addressed members of Congress in March, and during his speech, he asked Congress to support a $1 trillion infrastructure spending program. Trump claims this program will be the biggest reinvestment back into America since Eisenhower's interstate highway program, and if he can strong-arm Congress into approving his plan, it could send sales, profits, and share prices surging at Chicago Bridge & Iron (NYSE: CBI), Caterpillar Inc. (NYSE:CAT), and Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE:CLF).
The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that an eye-popping $3.3 trillion is needed to fund various infrastructure projects through 2025. Those projects are wide-ranging and include everything from energy infrastructure to bridges and roads.
It's anyone's guess if Congress will pass a big spending program that increases the national debt, but even if they pass a fraction of the amount that Donald Trump is requesting, it could still be a windfall for Chicago Bridge & Iron (CB&I).
CB&I helps upstream and downstream energy companies complete projects by performing engineering, procurement, and construction services. The company's fabrication business makes its money by building steel-plate structures, such as piping systems. Its various projects include liquefied natural gas terminals, electric power-plant projects, and drinking and wastewater pipelines.
On the campaign trail, Trump advocated for greater investment in oil, gas, and water infrastructure, and that's CB&I's wheelhouse. The company generates 70% of its revenue from U.S. projects, so it appears perfectly positioned to benefit from any increase in infrastructure spending that comes out of Congress.
Lately, CB&I's net income has dipped because of falling commodity prices, however, CB&I remains profitable. If demand increases, then it should be able to leverage sales growth against fixed costs to become even more profitable. In 2016, its operating income was $658 million on $10.7 billion in revenue, and after taxes, that translated into net income of $4.23 per share.
Assuming Donald Trump can get infrastructure spending across the finish line, then it's reasonable to think that CB&I's sales could rebound back to (or perhaps, beyond) the $13 billion in sales it recorded in 2013. If that happens, and operating margin goes back to the company's historical range of between 6% to 9%, up from about 5% today, then this stock could be a bargain. Industry analysts think that earnings per share (EPS) will be $2.85 in 2017, which means that investors can buy CB&I shares for less than 5 times earnings estimates. That doesn't seem like a lot to pay for a company that could enjoy a growth renaissance.
Pushing up profit
Increasing infrastructure spending could lead to greater demand for Caterpillar's heavy equipment, oil and gas well servicing, construction site generators, and locomotives too. Caterpillar gets about 50% of its revenue from North America, so it won't benefit as much from rising infrastructure spending as CB&I, but it could still enjoy a big boost to its sales and profit.
In 2016, declining demand for equipment weighed down Caterpillar's results in 2016, but that decline has led management to embrace cost-savings strategies that could help profit rebound more quickly when revenue increases again.
Caterpillar's revenue fell to $38.5 billion in 2016 from $47 billion in 2015, and as a result, its earnings per share declined to $3.42 from $5.35. Those declines are worrisome, but an acceleration in construction and mining demand due to infrastructure spending could quickly get Caterpillar back to record earnings. Last year, its cost savings programs shaved $2.3 billion in spending alone. Consider this point: Despite fourth quarter sales falling to $9.6 billion from $11 billion in Q4, 2015, adjusted EPS was unchanged between the two periods, at $0.83.
U.S. steel demand is bullish
Cliffs Natural Resources is the biggest supplier of iron-ore pellets to U.S. steel companies, and if Donald Trump is true to his word, then U.S. steel could increasingly find its way into U.S. infrastructure projects. If so, then Cliffs Natural Resources could enjoy a spike in revenue and profitability.
Cliffs Natural Resources eliminated $600 million in net debt from its books in 2016, and those efforts have reduced its net debt to the lowest levels since 2011. As a result, the company's net interest expense fell 27% year over year in the fourth quarter to $44 million, and after all the puts and takes, the company's net income was $81 million in Q4, 2016, or $0.42 per share.
In 2017, Cliffs expects to generate $310 million of net income. If it delivers on that target, it would mark a significant jump from its net income of $199 million last year. An improving market for iron ore, particularly high-iron content ore, offers important tailwinds globally, and U.S. pricing could benefit a lot if Donald Trump's trade rhetoric leads to a crackdown on cheap steel from overseas being used in the U.S. Overall, the potential earnings leverage at Cliffs Natural Resources could make it a top Trump infrastructure stock to buy.