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Better Buy: Caterpillar Inc. or Deere & Co.?

By Dan Caplinger - Jan 14, 2016 at 10:49AM

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Both of these equipment makers have struggled lately. Which looks more promising?

Image source: Deere.

The sputtering global economy has had a big impact on makers of heavy machinery, as the industrial customers in the construction, mining, and energy industries have cut back on capital spending in order to preserve cash. That's been bad news for Caterpillar (CAT 0.12%) and Deere (DE -0.01%), both of which have seen substantial losses in 2015. Yet for those who see a turnaround in the cyclical industry in the long run, it's reasonable to ask which stock is a better buy right now. Let's compare Caterpillar and Deere on a number of metrics to see which makes more sense right now.

Both Caterpillar and Deere have seen substantial share-price declines recently. Deere shares have fallen by about 25% just since last August, and Caterpillar is down by nearly a third since mid-2015.

The consequence of those stock drops has been to make each company's earnings multiples more attractive. Currently, both Caterpillar and Deere trade at almost identical trailing earnings multiples of around 12.5. Moreover, when you take into account the likelihood that each company will probably see their earnings decline in the near future, the two stocks still have similar forward earnings multiples as well, both scoring in the neighborhood of about 17 times forward earnings. Based solely on valuation, the stocks look very similar.

For dividend investors, there's a much clearer distinction between Caterpillar and Deere. Deere pays a dividend yield of about 3.25% right now. Caterpillar has a much higher yield that's approaching 5%.

However, that difference doesn't make a decision cut and dried. That's because Caterpillar has chosen to keep a higher payout ratio, paying a dividend of about 60% of its earnings. That compares to a dividend payout ratio of just 40% for Deere. In other words, Deere has made a conscious decision to hold back more of its available cash for purposes other than paying dividends, while Caterpillar has made dividends more of a priority.

Indeed, Deere chose not to make a raise in its quarterly dividend in 2015, making the same decision it made in 2009 in response to tough economic conditions. Caterpillar went forward with an aggressive 10% dividend increase, prolonging a streak of annual increases that has extended for more than a decade. The confidence that shows should give Caterpillar investors more certainty about dividends in the future, giving the stock an edge over Deere.

Fundamentally, both Caterpillar and Deere have seen their businesses struggle lately. In its most recent quarter, Caterpillar posted overall sales declines of 19%. The company's energy and transportation segment saw the biggest drop, as revenue fell 25% because of the huge disruptions in the energy industry. Yet resources sales fell 17%, and the construction segment suffered a 15% decline. The company's forward outlook remained weak, with an overall revenue drop of 5% coming primarily from the mining and energy-oriented businesses.

For Deere, the most recent quarter's struggles were even worse, as worldwide net revenue dropped by 25%. CEO Sam Allen pointed to weakness in the global agricultural sector and a slowdown in the construction-equipment market to explain the decline, but the resulting drop of more than 45% in net income was nevertheless painful. Deere expects further declines for 2016, with company equipment revenue slated to fall 7% on particular weakness in agricultural equipment sales that could send results from its North American market down 15% to 20% from 2015 levels. Both Deere and Caterpillar appear to expect similar challenges as they navigate the tough economic environment.

Right now, there's a lot of uncertainty for both Caterpillar and Deere, making either one somewhat of a speculative purchase for short-term-minded traders. In the long run, though, both companies have more favorable prospects. Based on the comparisons above, Caterpillar arguably has more long-term upside, even though Deere might recover more quickly if the agricultural sector stands out from other parts of the economy.

Dan Caplinger has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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Stocks Mentioned

Caterpillar Inc. Stock Quote
Caterpillar Inc.
$186.03 (0.12%) $0.22
Deere & Company Stock Quote
Deere & Company
$343.68 (-0.01%) $0.03

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