It's a good thing Nucor (NYSE:NUE) was able to raise steel prices this quarter. Had it not been able to do so, the quarter would have been an even bigger whiff. Net sales were up 10%, because of a 13% improvement in prices that was offset by lower shipment volumes. Scrap costs soared 18%, and operating income came in 23% below last year's very strong results.

The specific figures are the only "new" news in Thursday's report. Nucor already signaled this quarter's weakness to investors last month, and it outlined all of the same issues mentioned in Thursday's press release. I stepped through all of these challenges already, and I didn't see anything to be terrified about. I still don't.

As with the oil and gas industry, there's an upstream and a downstream to the metals business. Nucor is diversified across this spectrum, which runs from making plain old beams and bars to much higher-specification, value-added products. This makes Nucor a conservative steel play, with stronger downside protection than a more narrowly focused company like Tenaris (NYSE:TS), a specialist in drill pipe and coiled tubing used in offshore and deepwater oil and gas wells. If you want to be invested in a U.S. steel company today, Nucor is the one to roll with.

Still, that may be a big "if." Steel is about as good a barometer of an economy's health as a commodity can be. Our Fed chairman recently came quite close to making a stagflation proclamation, and housing's foundation keeps revealing more cracks. This macro environment is going to prove extremely trying for everyone from Steel Dynamics (NYSE:STLD) to U.S. Steel (NYSE:X). Rooting for this team in the near term is likely to be about as rewarding as pulling for the Phillies. Sorry, Philadelphia.

So what's a steel investor to do? If you don't have the resolve to ride out Nucor's near-term challenges, my advice would be to go global. Having mentioned it, Tenaris is riding a very strong trend in the global energy sector.

There are two more names you might want to consider, both of which can provide exposure to the emerging-market infrastructure boom. I don't see that trend cooling off, no matter what happens here in the States. Steel is a great way to play it, and whether you prefer POSCO's (NYSE:PKX) leverage to East Asia or Gerdau's (NYSE:GGB) giant presence in Latin America, those are both strong operators perhaps worth your time.

For related Foolishness:

For a fun new way to do research on stocks, check out Motley Fool CAPS, our new investment community.

Fool contributor Toby Shute tries to get a table at Monk's whenever he's visiting Philadelphia. He doesn't own shares in any company mentioned. POSCO is an Income Investor recommendation. The Motley Fool's disclosure policy prefers Geno's cheesesteaks to Pat's.