Cliffs Natural Resources (NYSE:CLF) has a long, illustrious history, tracing its origins back 165 years to its formation as the Cleveland Iron Mining Company. With the discovery of iron ore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula in the mid-19th century and the opening of a navigable canal linking Lake Superior to the lower Great Lakes, the company became a key supplier for new steel mills on the south shore of Lake Erie.
More than a century and a half later, the company has survived numerous challenges, and having acquired its first U.S. coal mine in 2007, changed its name from Cleveland-Cliffs to Cliffs Natural Resources shortly thereafter. The company is now a key supplier not just to U.S. steelmakers but around the world, opening up the full potential of the global economy but also leaving it vulnerable to slowdowns in key areas around the world. My premium report on Cliffs Natural Resources goes into more detail on this natural-resources company and includes the following description of the substantial opportunity that the company has to grow in the future.
Over the past decade, the appetite from emerging market for infrastructure improvements has dramatically increased. Booming economies in China, India, Brazil, and elsewhere around the world have driven massive construction projects, and that in turn has driven demand for steel. As a longtime producer of iron ore, Cliffs already had a strong position in supplying one of the key ingredients for steel production.
But when CEO Joseph Carrabba took the helm in 2006, he started a move toward Cliffs reaching a more global scope. By acquiring metallurgical coal resources, Cliffs became a one-stop shop for both of the major ingredients in steel. And rather than remaining content with its roots in the Great Lakes, Cliffs took steps to acquire assets in foreign markets that were closer to the new sources of steel demand, with Brazilian properties serving the South American emerging economy and assets in Australia meeting demand from the Asian market. With the purchase of Freewest Resources in early 2010, Cliffs added chromite, a necessary ingredient in producing a steel-strengthening anti-corrosive alloy, to its offerings.
In recent years, though, Cliffs has faced some huge challenges. During the financial crisis in 2008 and early 2009, demand for commodities plunged as the global economy teetered on the brink of collapse. Since then, economic activity recovered substantially, but more recently, slowing emerging-market economies have once again brought future demand into question. Moreover, as mining costs have risen, Cliffs faces the same challenges that competitors Rio Tinto (NYSE:RIO), Vale (NYSE:VALE), and BHP Billiton (NYSE:BHP) are all struggling with: how to maintain healthy margins even under adverse market conditions. Meanwhile, even though Cliffs focuses on metallurgical coal, it has nevertheless gotten lumped in with thermal coal producers in the U.S., whose fortunes have soured due to low natural-gas prices and consequent weak demand from electricity-producing utilities.
Looking forward, though, Cliffs still has plenty of potential. Emerging-market nations are taking steps to try to bolster their slowing growth, with China having recently approved a spending package to inject $150 billion into new infrastructure and construction projects. Combined with massive building projects in Brazil in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympic Games that the country is hosting, a cyclical rebound in steel demand could bring Cliffs back from the sharp losses its stock has suffered during most of 2012.
For Cliffs Natural Resources, the biggest long-term potential lies in the eventual need for countries around the world to produce steel for their construction and infrastructure needs. A macroeconomic pause may delay its eventual success, but if Cliffs can navigate difficult environments and remain persistent, it should be able to position itself to reap the rewards when better times return.
Fool contributor Dan Caplinger has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool has no positions in the stocks mentioned above. 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. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.