As global in scope as the steel industry has become, the fate of each operator remains meaningfully tied to the prevailing business conditions in its host country.
Whether one looks to the impacts of China's inflation-taming efforts upon steelmakers like Baosteel Group, or the fascinating dance between POSCO's (NYSE: PKX ) surging cost structure and the acute price-sensitivity of its major South Korean clients, it is clear even the world's leading steelmakers have yet to fully sever the umbilical cord that connects them with the economic landscape of their home country or region.
Among relatively smaller operators with even greater reliance on domestic buyers, their utility as bellwethers -- or harbingers of developing conditions for a wide array of business interests -- grows stronger still. With that in mind, it is with great interest that I note Steel Dynamics' (Nasdaq: STLD ) strongly improved earnings performance during the first quarter of 2011 and the confirmation it provides of improving industrial activity unfolding in the United States.
Less than three months ago, I lamented the "anemic" profit of just $8 million that resulted from a tough margin squeeze, and from ramp-up issues at the company's new Mesabi iron nugget facility. With first-quarter earnings exploding to $106 million, and overall steel shipments growing 10% sequentially, this is the sort of performance that becomes strongly suggestive of resurgent underlying strength within the American industrial machine. Given an 18% increase in average realized prices over the quarter, buyers of Steel Dynamics' products collectively exhibited some noteworthy capacity to sustain their demand in the face of persistent cost-push inflationary forces.
POSCO just announced a comparable 16% to 18% price increase of its own, and time will tell whether shipbuilders and other major South Korean buyers will absorb the increase as cleanly. Shippers are already feeling the heat from persistently depressed charter rates, and operator Genco Shipping & Trading (NYSE: GNK ) became just the latest of many to fall on analyst downgrades during recent weeks.
Back on the domestic front, we also need to confirm Steel Dynamics' results with similarly improved earnings from a range of steelmakers (set to report in the coming days and weeks) before overreaching with macroeconomic interpretations. Commercial Metals (NYSE: CMC ) lost $46.2 million in its fiscal quarter ending Feb. 28, 2011. This represented a far smaller loss than the company reported a year earlier, but still short of a glowing signal of resurgent industrial strength. Nucor (NYSE: NUE ) will report later this week, and that company routinely provides one of the clearest interpretations of the prevailing conditions for America's industrial base.