High Cost and Low Prices Make for a Less Than Steely Combination

It's easy to see that the metals markets have come in a variety of colors -- or conditions -- as they report their third quarter results.

As is typically the case, Alcoa (NYSE: AA  ) kicked off earnings season with results that, while not spectacular, indicated some improvement in the company, despite sagging aluminum prices. And then there was Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE: FCX  ) , which rode higher prices for its copper, gold, and molybdenum to a solid and encouraging quarter.

Now the steel companies are reporting, and the results are uniformly far from attractive. For instance, U.S. Steel (NYSE: X  ) , trimmed its loss to $51 million, or $0.35 a share, compared with $303 million, or $2.11 a share, a year ago. But more importantly, the loss in the most recent quarter doubled the $25 million in red ink turned in by the company in the immediately prior quarter.

But U.S. Steel isn't alone in its dilemma. Also on Tuesday, Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT  ) , the world's largest producer, told the world that, while its earnings of $1.35 billion was 48% higher than the prior year's $910 million, it nevertheless tumbled 21% sequentially. In disclosing the numbers, CEO Lakshmi Mittal singled out flagging consumer confidence and noted emerging austerity measures.

The beat goes on: Nucor Corp. (NYSE: NUE  ) , the largest of the U.S. mini-mill operators, has sighted tough sledding ahead. Daniel DiMicco, the company's CEO, recently observed that, "the U.S. economy has entered a new period of uncertainty." And beyond that, South Korea's big manufacturer Posco (NYSE: PKX  ) has recently chopped its profit forecast for 2010.

There clearly are several factors tamping down steel manufacturing profits: Demand is down in the automobile and construction sectors -- and elsewhere -- prices remain under pressure, and the costs of ore and coal continue to rise.

During U.S. Steel's Tuesday call with analysts, CFO Gretchen Haggerty predicted that, "Fourth quarter results for flat-rolled are expected to be in line with the third quarter." And looking at the company's other two areas of operation, she forecast that, "… fourth quarter results for U.S. Steel Europe (will) be comparable to the third quarter …" At the same time, she stated that, "We expect our tubular segment (primarily applied to the energy) to remain profitable in the fourth quarter, but we do expect lower results as compared to the third quarter."

It's hard, then, to find many positives among the steel producers, including U.S. Steel. As such, Foolish investors would be better served by looking to other metals companies such Freeport-McMoRan.

Nucor is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor recommendation. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days.

We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the the above-named companies.  The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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