For Caterpillar, a bellwether of American industrial might, President Donald Trump's trade war is threatening to halt what was shaping up as a record year for profits.
Analysts have been predicting net income could reach an all-time high of $6.24 billion as expanding economies fuel robust demand for the manufacturer's signature yellow diggers, bulldozers and dump trucks. But the shares had their worst first half since the recession of 2009, and they've been slow to rebound.
That's because Caterpillar gets more than half its sales outside the U.S., and an escalating trade war is menacing global economic-growth prospects. Tensions have been high as Trump warned he could expand import tariffs that have already led to retaliatory duties by China, Mexico, Canada and Europe. Rising metal prices that have dented industrial profits could ensnare Caterpillar's recovery.
"That's the biggest risk," said Larry De Maria, an analyst at William Blair & Co. "The trade war absolutely could have an impact and spill over into the global economy, and could have an impact on the strong cycle Caterpillar has seen in their end-markets generally."
Revenue at Deerfield, Illinois-based Caterpillar is forecast to rise to $14 billion in the second quarter from $11.3 billion the same period a year earlier, based on the average of 13 analysts' estimates compiled by Bloomberg. Net income was expected to rise to $2.59 a share from $1.35.
Caterpillar has given investors a series of better-than-expected results after a downturn in commodities pulled sales lower for four straight years through 2016. The company went from the second-worst performer of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 2015 to the second-best last year.
That string of earnings and sale surprises may be in danger of being snapped with the trade war. The International Monetary Fund warned that the friction is threatening to derail a global upswing that's already losing momentum amid weaker growth in Europe and Japan. On Wednesday, General Motors Co. cut its forecast for profit this year, in part because of surging prices for steel and aluminum after the U.S. slapped tariffs on the metals.
Higher costs for the steel Caterpillar purchases to make equipment could show up three to six months after U.S. tariffs are imposed on imports of the metal, Amy Campbell, director of investor relations, said in March after the U.S. announced the tariffs.
In its first-quarter earnings statement in April, Caterpillar lifted its 2018 profit projection amid a broadening recovery in mining and construction as well as fatter margins after years of cost cutting. But on the call that followed, the company said first-quarter adjusted profit per share "will be the high watermark for the year."
"There's been a lot more tariff discussion and the issue is out there, so I think that they have to discuss that within the context the 'high watermark' comment that scared people," William Blair's De Maria said. They'll also have to explain what they're seeing "in regard to global growth and how much tariffs may eventually impact global growth and how they manage those tariffs."
This article was written by Joe Deaux, a reporter for The Washington Post.