Time flies when you're making money. And I'll bet the last two years went by all too quickly for steel makers.

Although the market for steel hasn't collapsed, and earnings are still pretty good by historical comparisons, the market and those stocks have cooled after strong showings in 2003 and 2004. Steel will always be a cyclical business, but that doesn't mean that Nucor (NYSE:NUE) won't become an ever-larger player.

As expected, this year's third quarter doesn't compare all that favorably to last year. Sales were down about 7%, and earnings dropped 30% as the company dealt with lower prices per finished ton and higher energy costs. Nevertheless, earnings still exceeded the company's prior guidance, and year-to-date cash flow has stayed pretty solid.

Management still seems committed to making Nucor the best operator around, regardless of year-to-year changes in the market. The company continues to look at better strategies to manage energy, raw material costs, and supplies. Furthermore, I would expect management to continue to evaluate tuck-in acquisitions, particularly those that would bring more higher-margin/higher-value products into the mix.

The trouble, though, is that no matter how good a steel company Nucor may be, it may have already grown to such a size that its edges are muted by its scale. Over the last long haul, Nucor has been a better pick than other steel companies like Motley Fool Income Investor pick POSCO (NYSE:PKX) and U.S. Steel (NYSE:X), but that gap is starting to shrink -- at least with respect to POSCO. Is this because people have woken up to POSCO, no longer give such a premium to Nucor, or a bit of both? I don't really know, but it's food for thought.

In any case, Nucor is become less of a growth play on a new way of running a steel company and more of just a steel company, albeit a very well-run one. That makes it a little tougher to hang onto the stock through the ups and downs. I don't have my own special crystal ball for forecasting steel prices, and Nucor doesn't offer me quite enough of a dividend to sit and wait. So if I'm going to invest in metals, I'm more likely to go in the direction of POSCO or CVRD (NYSE:RIO) instead of Nucor.

For more steals on steel, check out this Foolishness:

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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson has no financial interest in any stocks mentioned (that means he's neither long nor short the shares).