Buy, Sell, or Hold: AK Steel Holding

When considering any stock for your portfolio, don't be swayed by just the positives. Examine its pros and cons, and decide whether it's possible upside outweighs its risks. Let's take a look at AK Steel Holding (NYSE: AKS  ) today and see why you might want to buy, sell, or hold it.

Founded  in 1993 and based in Ohio, AK Steel Holding sports a market capitalization of about $575 million. It makes and sells flat-rolled carbon, stainless, and electrical steel, among other things, including a variety of specialty products. Its stock is down about 42% over the past year and has averaged annual losses  of 36% over the past five years and 2% over the past decade.

Buy
One reason to consider AK Steel, or any steel company, is steel itself. It's unlikely to be supplanted anytime soon as a critical building material, and even though it's cyclical, the cycle does eventually always return to growing demand. Even now, there are signs that the housing market is beginning to turn around, and car sales have been picking up, too. Vehicle and home construction require steel.

The fact that we're at the low end of steel's current cycle means that steel companies are sporting rather low valuations. Whereas AK Steel's five-year average P/E ratio is close to 40, it's negative now, because of net losses. Its five-year average price-to-sales ratio, and that of its industry, is 0.4, and right now that ratio is 0.1.

A plus for the company might seem to be its dividend, recently yielding a hefty 3.9% according to some online sources. But a closer look yields something else -- an announcement  back in July that the company is suspending its dividend, in order to conserve cash.

Sell
One reason to avoid AK Steel and other steelmakers at the moment is that the industry isn't yet firing on all cylinders. AK Steel itself recently reported disappointing third-quarter earnings , citing low prices for steel and a hefty tax expense. Revenue was about 8% lower than year-ago levels, and prices were down 7%.

And AK Steel is not alone in disappointing investors. Nucor (NYSE: NUE  ) posted third-quarter earnings down 39% from year-ago levels, for example, and has even had its debt downgraded  by Moody's recently, because of the industry's slump. In general, though, Nucor is very highly regarded, and its breadth of operations, including recycling steel, serves as ballast.

A close look at AK Steel's numbers is not encouraging, either. It has been free-cash-flow-negative  for the past few years, with cash flow from operations negative recently, too. Revenue is down from levels of several years ago and has been struggling to grow. Net income has been negative since 2009, and the losses have been widening . Its cash coffers have been shrinking in recent years, and long-term debt  is significant -- and growing. (These details don't bode well for its dividend, by the way.)

Hold (off)
Given the reasons to buy or sell AK Steel Holding, it's not unreasonable to decide to just hold off. You might want to wait for the global economic recovery to really take hold, for AK Steel's revenue and earnings to start growing, and perhaps even for it to be confident enough to reinstate its dividend.

You might also take a closer look at some other steel-related companies, such as Brazil-based mining giant Vale (NYSE: VALE  ) , in the business of producing iron ore for steelmaking. It has been whacked by slowing growth in China, Europe's troubled economies, and currency exchange rates. All that leaves the company with compelling price-to-earnings ratios.

ArcelorMittal (NYSE: MT  ) or U.S. Steel (NYSE: X  ) are also worth considering, as they're steel companies that are more vertically integrated than most and thus more able to control inputs and pricing as they own their own mines. Both are free-cash-flow-positive -- ArcelorMittal more so, but both also carry significant debt .

The verdict
I'm going to pass on AK Steel Holding. Everyone's investment calculations are different, though, so do your own digging and see what you think. Remember that there are plenty of other compelling stocks out there.

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Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian, whom you can follow on Twitterhas no positions in the stocks mentioned above. The Motley Fool owns shares of ArcelorMittal and Nucor. Motley Fool newsletter services recommend Nucor. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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