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Behind the massive bet against Caterpillar

Monday, 10 Feb 2014 | 2:14 PM ET
Trouble for industrials
Monday, 10 Feb 2014 | 12:00 PM ET
Options traders are betting big against Caterpillar and other industrial names.

Caterpillar has had a nice run this year, rising nearly 4 percent, which is enough to make it the second-best performing Dow component. But one giant player appears to think the run is over.

In a massive options trade that hit the tape on Friday, 42,000 February 92.5/97.5 call spreads were sold in Caterpillar for $2.30 each, which implies a belief that Caterpillar will be trading below $92.50 at February expiration on Feb. 21. If the stock is trading about $94.80 the seller will lose money, with the potential loss capped at a staggering $11 million.

"A big institutional player is basically saying, 'I think the run is over in Caterpillar,' " said Mike Khouw of Dash Financial.

On the back of an impressive earnings report released on Jan. 27, Caterpillar found its way to a one-year high on Friday, before backing off on Monday. But Khouw believes that investors could be guilty of paying too much attention to the short-term noise.

(Read more: Caterpillar posts stronger-than-expected fourth-quarter profit)

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"What's happened is a knee-jerk reaction to a slightly better-than-expected number," Khouw said. "But the bigger concern is whether the global growth we've seen over the past 12 years is sustainable, or if we're ever going to see it again."

Friday's trade appears to reflect the type of bearishness around the name that's long been held by many major investors. Back in July, Jim Chanos presented his thesis for being short at the Delivering Alpha conference.

(Read more: Short-seller Chanos falls double digits in '13)

"This is one of these stocks that a lot of smart people love to hate," Khouw said. "It's supported by strong historical performance, name recognition and frankly good will—but it appears to be in the midst of a massive secular shift."

The big options trade does not represent a bet that the stock will drop back down to $85, say. But it clearly implies a belief that the stock will move no higher from current levels.

And based on the size of Friday's trade, Khouw conjectures that it was made by a firm managing at least $8 billion.

—By CNBC's Alex Rosenberg. Follow him on Twitter: @CNBCAlex.

Follow the show on Twitter: @CNBCOptions.

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