Corporate America rings alarm on global slump

@CNNMoney July 26, 2012: 1:25 PM ET
Weak earnings reflect global slowdown

Caterpillar's CEO is optimistic about future global growth.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Global growth worries hit Corporate America this week. Several bellwethers said that difficult overseas markets had affected their second quarter earnings, leading some to temper their outlooks.

UPS, DuPont (DD, Fortune 500) and Ford (F, Fortune 500), U.S.-based companies that rely heavily on overseas sales, all sounded very pessimistic about the global economy.

Citing "continuing weakness" in Asia and uncertainty over Europe's debt crisis, UPS said it now expects to bring in less revenue in the second half of the year.

DuPont cited difficulties in Europe. So did Ford. Exxon Mobil (XOM, Fortune 500) also pointed to "global economic uncertainty" in its earnings report Thursday.

And even Caterpillar (CAT, Fortune 500), which raised its earnings forecasts for the year Wednesday, still cut the top end of the range for its full-year sales expectations due to "weaker economic conditions in much of the world."

Caterpillar also suggested that it stands ready to slash jobs should the global economy deteriorate further. CEO Doug Oberhelman said that "we will not hesitate to act if we need to" before adding that he was hopeful the global economy was making a turn for the better.

"I am cautiously optimistic about the world economy in 2013, very positive on the long-term prospects for global growth and excited about the role Caterpillar will play in making that growth happen," Oberhelman said.

But when you dig deeper, Caterpillar's outlook isn't that cheerful. Oberhelman pointed to "U.S. construction activity that remains depressed" and worries about Europe.

So why did Caterpillar raise its earnings forecasts? Caterpillar is very active in Brazil and China -- two countries that have brighter growth prospects than most.

Oberhelman specifically cited interest rate cuts in Brazil and China as encouraging examples of "actions needed for better world economic growth.".

Caterpillar said business in Brazil has improved and that further easing by China should lift growth there as well.

Bill Adams, a senior international economist at PNC Financial Services Group, said it was reasonable to be guardedly optimistic about a possible upturn in areas of the world not named Europe.

"The earnings reports reveal a weak global economy, but outside of Europe, there are signs that the rest of the world will modestly accelerate in the second half of the year," Adams said.

Adams pointed to a Chinese manufacturing report that indicated improvement in the sector in July. While still technically contracting, the index is at its highest level in months.

Eric Lascelles, chief economist at RBC Global Asset Management, added that Caterpillar probably has a better feel than other companies about recovering economies due to the nature of their business. Construction is often considered a leading economic indicator.

"Caterpillar might have the earlier read of things, just because of the part of the business cycle they are in," Lascelles said. "And I am seeing evidence that both China and Brazil are bottoming out."

And even in Europe, Adams said, there are reasons for optimism -- despite Spanish 10-year bond yields being above 7% amid growing fears that Spain will need a full bailout like Greece, Portugal and Ireland.

"The European financial system looks very stressed, but we are in a fundamentally different place than last year," Adams said, citing the new aggressive stance of the continent's central bankers.

"We were worried about a meltdown or liquidity freeze last year, and those risks are vastly reduced today," he said. "The European Central Bank has demonstrated they are committed to keeping the system afloat."

Along those lines, stocks around the globe rallied Thursday after ECB president Mario Draghi hinted that the central bank will do all it can to save the euro.

Still, it's difficult to get too excited about the prospects of the global economy. Caterpillar may be a somewhat unique case.

In addition, the experience of both the U.S. and Europe shows that rate cuts are not a cure for slumping economies. It's unclear that Brazil and China will continue to rebound just because their central banks are taking action.

UPS (UPS, Fortune 500), for one, sounded a much more pessimistic note.

"Economies around the world are showing signs of weakening, and our customers are increasingly nervous," UPS CEO Scott Davis said during a conference call with analysts.

"Overall, GDP forecasts around the world are declining," he said.  To top of page

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