Signs of an economic slowdown are becoming harder to ignore. Whether it's a fourth straight decline in the Conference Board's leading economic indicators, a yield of just 3.98% on the 10-year Treasury note, a 500-point drop in the Dow since mid-September or commentary from some of the nation's largest industrial companies, evidence of a deceleration in growth is mounting. "A mini-replay of the second-quarter soft patch may be shaping up," said Steven Wieting, an economist at Smith Barney. Although Wieting cut estimates on fourth-quarter gross domestic product Thursday, he still believes the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates by more than 100 basis points in 2005, as the economy picks up steam. But heavy equipment maker Caterpillar ( CAT) isn't quite as confident. "Central Bankers have discussed moving to neutral interest rates, but we expect such moves will be cautious and limited," the firm said in a statement Thursday. "Both moderate economic growth and surplus labor will keep inflation low." Caterpillar projected that world economic growth will slow to around 3.5% in 2005, from 4% this year. As a result, revenue at the firm is expected to climb just 10% next year, down from a projected 30% jump in 2004. While Caterpillar posted strong profit and revenue growth in the third quarter, high raw material prices crimped margins and fourth-quarter estimates were not increased, as some had hoped. In response, shares fell almost 4%, or $3.21, to $77.17. Diversified industrial giant Ingersoll-Rand ( IR) also disappointed investors Thursday, despite reporting a 53% jump in earnings during the third quarter. The company said it expects to earn between $1.13 and $1.23 a share in the fourth quarter and between $4.80 and $4.90 for the full year. According to Thomson First Call, Ingersoll was expected to earn $1.28 in the fourth quarter and $4.90 for the year. The stock fell 3.4%, or $2.34, to $65.76.
Earlier in the week, industrial manufacturer 3M ( MMM) posted soft third-quarter results and said guidance for the fourth quarter and full year would be below estimates. "We ... remain cautious on the global economy," said CEO James McNerney. A number of
analysts have advised investors to exit cyclical stocks recently and move into more defensive names that tend to hold up better when the economy turns down. Lukewarm outlooks from Caterpillar, Ingersoll and 3M, as well as disappointing economic data recently, suggest those might be wise calls. Although the Philadelphia Federal Reserve's index of business conditions rebounded in October, the details of the report were worrying. Employment fell more than 7 points to a six-month low and expectations for future business activity saw the biggest drop in five years. Meanwhile, the index of leading economic indicators, or LEI, declined 0.1% in September, signaling a slower pace of growth ahead. Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at High Frequency Economics, said the LEI is consistent with GDP growth of just 1% in the fourth quarter. "We are still inclined to expect growth to exceed this pace, but the downside risks are now clear," he said.