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Like wayward mariners lost in a pea-soup fog, uncertain investors are keeping a sharp ear out for the bells and whistles that will indicate the next way forward for the American economy.
Every available clue is meaningful under the circumstances. Off-cycle earnings reports from bellwether industrial companies Joy Global (Nasdaq: JOYG ) and Commercial Metals (NYSE: CMC ) have already provided insightful and timely glimpses of the voyage ahead, and this week steelmaker Schnitzer Steel (Nasdaq: SCHN ) chipped in with another key snapshot of an economy at a crossroads.
On the surface, Schnitzer's earnings results from its fiscal third quarter portray a bellwether riding a wave of recovery. Consolidated revenue surged 84% from prior-year levels. At $704 million, in fact, this top-line result marks a whopping 25% sequential increase over a second quarter that saw competitor AK Steel (NYSE: AKS ) declaring that it was "firmly on the road to recovery." Schnitzer's $40 million profit for the quarter is greater than twice that of the second fiscal quarter. If Schnitzer's result proves indicative of the steelmakers' second quarter collectively, then some investors are bound to conclude that a steadfast continuation of improvement in industrial activity takes fears of a double-dip recession off the table.
I would like nothing more than to agree, but as a doggedly truth-seeking Fool, I continue to call the shots as I see them. Incredibly, now 17 months after the $787 billion stimulus package took shape, Schnitzer Steel indicates that discernable impacts from that program remain elusive. While presenting an outlook for weaker fourth-quarter results from its steel segment, the company states: "The business remains one of the few West Coast producers of long steel products, leaving it well-positioned to capitalize on stimulus and infrastructure spending when it occurs."
Looking back to early 2009, I expressed plentiful skepticism that the stimulus plan as devised possessed the necessary focus upon boosting industrial activity to spawn a truly sustainable path toward recovery. Meanwhile, the world has watched with wonderment as China's corresponding stimulus relit the fires of pan-Asian industry. South Korean steelmaker POSCO (NYSE: PKX ) , for example, continues to display the sort of stimulated strength that shows what real recovery looks like.
Even when U.S. steelmaker Nucor (NYSE: NUE ) revealed remarkably positive first-quarter results last April, I could not shake my skepticism toward a recovery that would have to be not only jobless under the circumstances ... but also "houseless." Although I cannot say with certainty that renewed weakness in housing and other key indicators presages a full-blown double-dip recession, I will suggest that Schnitzer Steel's outlook for deteriorating steel sales volumes and tightening operating margins is not the sort of positive indicator that this Fool pined for to counteract a spate of disconcerting signals.
In a recent Motley Poll, readers were nearly evenly split in their expectations regarding the voyage that awaits the American economy overall. 51% of respondents called for a double-dip recession (or worse), while 49% expected a slow recovery (or better). Your opinion is needed to break the tie, so please take a moment to vote in that poll, and to express your own outlook for the American economy in the comments box below.