Oh, those wacky metals. One day, everybody is worried about strikes and shortages, and the next day, people start noticing the gap between the current trading prices of many metals and their marginal production costs. And that's just the market perception -- metal recycler Metal Management (NASDAQ:MTLM) has to navigate the actual vagaries of high volatility in the prices of ferrous and non-ferrous scrap metal.

Volatility or no, this was still a decent fiscal fourth quarter for the company. Revenue was down 6%, but the company did ship a pretty solid volume of non-ferrous scrap. Margins looked good, and the company posted operating income growth of roughly 23% and EBITDA growth of 20%.

As I said, the price environment is still pretty rocky. Prices for ferrous scrap dropped about 14% from last year, but non-ferrous prices rose 22%. The company didn't go into detail on that latter point, but my guess would be that the high market value of metals like copper and zinc would have been a big help. Despite the pricing environment, Metal Management did make the most of the flexibility in its operations, cutting back on exports to take advantage of a relatively better local market.

As for what the future holds for scrap-metal pricing, I have no idea. Big users of scrap like Nucor (NYSE:NUE) seem generally positive on the steel market outlook for now, but we've all seen how that can change quickly, for good or bad. And with the prices of coking coal and iron ore still pretty healthy -- CVRD (NYSE:RIO) seems to be getting price hikes in the high teens for this year -- the cost competitiveness of mini-mills should be OK, barring a big swing in gas prices.

There's no question that you can make a lot of money on stocks like Metal Management -- or competitors like Commercial Metals (NYSE:CMC) or Schnitzer Steel (NASDAQ:SCHN) -- if you're a savvy and opportunistic trader. And I freely admit to playing these kinds of situations myself from time to time. But for those looking for long-term ideas, just remember that most metal prices are above-trend today, and that could make for difficult years ahead, even as Metal Management gains share and leverage in the sector.

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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).