Nifty Nucor Notches a Victory

Pull out your favorite buzzwords from bygone eras, because the significance of what is happening in domestic U.S. steel demand right now is downright nifty, groovy, and dy-no-mite.

Steelmaking giant Nucor (NYSE: NUE  ) crushed its own guidance this week with net income of $0.10 per share in the first quarter. An anticipated LIFO charge left headline earnings below the mark of $0.18 per share recorded for the fourth quarter of 2009, but the surprising strength of non-construction-related steel demand yields a substantially improved snapshot of American industrial activity relative to prevailing expectations even just a few months ago.

Mirroring the strong sequential improvement observed by smaller scrapper Steel Dynamics (Nasdaq: STLD  ) , Nucor reports a 19% surge in tons shipped compared to the fourth quarter of 2009. Factoring in a 5% hike in realized prices, net sales climbed an inspiring 24%, sequentially, to $3.65 billion.

From the cavernous crater of excess capacity that sent Nucor's utilization rate to just 45% one year earlier, this important measure of relative activity bounced back to 73% for the first quarter of 2010. If we were to back out the impact of persistently weak demand for construction-related products like joists and decks -- a condition that forced Commercial Metals (NYSE: CMC  ) to discontinue its corresponding unit -- Nucor's utilization rate would look far stronger ... near the 90% mark.

South Korean steelmaker POSCO (NYSE: PKX  ) recently showed us what real recovery looks like, but if we squint really hard to ignore the pronounced weakness in domestic construction markets, we might just be forging a separate, albeit substantially longer path to a more palatable image of this "new normal" that we keep hearing about. We've also heard a lot about a jobless recovery, but is there a sub-category available for a "houseless recovery"?

Unfortunately, my doggedly pragmatic eyelids lack the squinting strength to block out the more foreboding image of widespread state and municipal budget shortfalls and those most threatening bullies of our economic playground: federal debt and inflation. I find tremendous relief -- and hope -- in the rapid improvements observed recently by key bellwether companies like Arch Coal (NYSE: ACI  ) , and I welcome the proclamation by AK Steel (NYSE: AKS  ) that the company is "firmly on the road to recovery." Until we can draft a topographical map of that road, however, this Fool remains only a cautious participant in the improving industrial outlook. I hope you'll take a moment to share your own outlook for the domestic industrial sector in the comments section below.

Which domestic steelmaker will you choose as your steely wager for eventual recovery in the U.S. industrial sector? Please nominate your favorite in the comments section below, and cast your official vote by joining Motley Fool CAPS and adding your pick to your CAPS portfolio.

Fool contributor Christopher Barker is the Nat King of Coal and the wild boar of iron ore. He can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly in the Motley Fool CAPS community under the user name TMFSinchiruna. He tweets. He owns shares of Arch Coal. Nucor is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor choice. Posco is a Motley Fool Income Investor selection. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a stainless disclosure policy.


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