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Commodities pain spreading, Caterpillar retrenches

Caterpillar, forecasting the longest revenue decline in its history, is the latest casualty of the global commodities selloff, a downward spiral that's not likely to end any time soon.

Sensitive to both energy and mining, Caterpillar warned Thursday that its revenues will be $1 billion less than the $49 billion expected this year, and it sees another decline next year. As a result, it announced further restructuring steps to cut $1.5 billion in annual costs, and said it could eliminate as many as 10,000 workers by 2018.

The company said it expects a 5 percent decline in sales and revenues in 2016—the first time in its 90 years that it would experience four years in a row of shrinking sales and revenues.

A Caterpillar Inc. D10R Crawler Tractor bulldozer moves coal at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia.
Luke Sharrett | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A Caterpillar Inc. D10R Crawler Tractor bulldozer moves coal at an Alpha Natural Resources Inc. coal preparation plant in Logan County near Yolyn, West Virginia.

Caterpillar is among a long list of companies reeling from the pain of plunging commodities prices, the aftermath of the supercycle that once was a boom for commodities producers and the companies that supplied them.

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Mining companies like Glencore and Freeport-McMoRan, both cutting capacity, have seen their stocks plunge. Glencore lost another 8 percent Thursday. The shares of oil drillers like Apache, TransOcean and Marathon, are all about 60 percent off their highs.

The selloff in commodities this week is in part the result of the Fed's focus on China at its rates meeting last week and downward revisions for Chinese growth and demand for raw materials.

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Francisco Blanch, head of global commodities and derivatives research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, said he expects pressure to remain on commodities markets. Copper, viewed as a proxy for global growth, will continue to slide, he said.

"First, global growth has been perhaps weaker than anticipated and the Fed's decision last week, I think, exacerbated those fears that global growth is just not picking up meaningfully. U.S. growth is fine but U.S. growth does not drive commodities demand," he said. "We think that copper has not broken out of a multiyear bear market, and we think prices will head lower and basically see a price of $4,400 a ton or $2 a pound in 2016." Copper futures were slightly higher at $2.31 Thursday.

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Bart Melek, head of commodities strategy at TD Securities, however, expects copper to find a bottom soon now that the industry has been paring back.

"We're at pretty firm support right now. There's always a risk that we fall through the technical support level and migrate way lower, but in this environment I would say probably the chances are we're kind of seeking bottom right now in everything from copper to nickel. There's been a bit of positive news on the supply side," he said, pointing to announcements by Glencore and others to shut down mining capacity.

That reduction in capacity should ultimately help correct an oversupply situation. "This is causing 'high grading,' meaning they only deliver the good bits of the ore body. The supply might not grow as quickly as people think and the surplus might turn into a deficit," he said.

But Blanch said the reductions will take some time to impact the market.

"We still think the market will be in surplus and we need to see additional cuts across the industry to stabilize," he said. "I think you can probably short copper for a few more months as long as global growth continues to trend sideways or go lower."

Blanch said emerging markets will be taking fiscal and monetary steps to right their economies, and U.S. growth should be higher. Emerging markets, many producers of commodities, have been at the epicenter of the shakeout as China demand cooled.

"Ultimately, emerging markets have to do the homework to reform at home, but it is important to point out that we are at the pain point where producers are taking tons of copper, barrels of oil and ounces of gold out of the market. We are seeing curtailments across the mining and energy industries and those cap ex curtailments are going to help stabilize prices. We are in the process of supply disruption," said Blanch.

Melek and Blanch expect oil to take another leg lower.

"We think we'll test the recent lows," said Melek, adding oil could drop into the $30s per barrel. "You have massive oversupply." He said the market will continue to be pressured by oversupply of 1.5 million to 2 million barrels a day for some time.

Caterpillar, meanwhile, described conditions in the energy and mining sectors as "challenging," and noted it has already made substantial changes to adjust.

"Our strategy is to deliver superior total shareholder returns through the business cycle, and growth is a key element of that strategy," Caterpillar chief Doug Oberhelman said. "However, several of the key industries we serve -- including mining, oil and gas, construction and rail -- have a long history of substantial cyclicality. While they are the right businesses to be in for the long term, we have to manage through what can be considerable and sometimes prolonged downturns."

China's growth is the wild card for markets. Credit Suisse analysts this week cut their outlook for Chinese demand, as well as commodities prices and mining stocks.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting the U.S. and traders have been watching him in hope of some clarifying comments on the Chinese economy and its policy. On Wednesday, he told U.S. business leaders that China is capable of maintaining relatively high growth for a long time and that China is taking steps to address the risks and challenges in its economy. Xi meets with President Barack Obama on Thursday.

The Credit Suisse analysts wrote that China's outsized investment in infrastructure needs to decline by 30 to 50 percent over the next five years, and that will have negative impact on demand for commodities like iron ore, coal and zinc. They said that copper needs more curtailments in production and that will send prices lower.

"There is little to like about most commodities over the medium term, just relative degrees of unloveliness," the Credit Suisse analysts wrote. They noted, "Until China demand and emerging market currencies hit a floor, it will remain challenging to put an absolute floor on commodity prices."

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Wall Street strategists have noted that the China slowdown story is nothing new but the market's obsession with it is, especially now that the Fed identified China as a cause of concern for even the domestic U.S. economy. The U.S. central bank noted its concerns about international developments and it also chopped its own growth and inflation forecasts when it held off hiking rates last week. The Fed now sees inflation this year at 0.4 percent, from 0.7 percent.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen speaks on the topic of inflation Thursday at 5 p.m. EDT.