Nucor Steel's (NYSE:NUE) first-quarter earnings results were, let's just say, less than solid. But the company may turn out to show that it's made of more metal than investors are giving it credit for.

In the first three months of this year, Nucor showed a consolidated net loss of $189.6 million, or $0.60 per diluted share. That was down big time from the same quarter last year, when the steel giant earned a profit of $409.8 million, or $1.41 per diluted share.

In particular, Nucor's steel mill utilization rate is now down to 45%, from 92% in the previous year's quarter, more than doubling the company's energy costs when it manufactures steel, to $11 per ton. With energy prices on the rebound, management doesn't forecast a rosy first half of 2009.

But, as my Foolish colleague Brian Pacampara pointed out recently, in April, the more-than-130,000 investors who participate in Motley Fool Caps gave Nucor a highly-respectable four-star ranking. Among the many reasons Fools liked Nucor was the company's previous success in building its infrastructure in the downtimes to position for an economic recovery.

As if on cue, Louisiana's Economic Development Secretary announced earlier this week that Nucor has just paid $16.3 million for an 890-acre plot of land in Louisiana. It's also reportedly looking to build a 500-person, $2 billion plant in Brazil.

The company may have use for new plants a bit sooner than expected as parts of the world's previously elusive economic recovery looks like it's finally getting underway. In India, demand for steel will "definitely" grow by 5% this year, while it could reach up to 10% growth, according to the country's union steel secretary.

In China, too, demand seems to be on the rise, mainly due to increased investment in the country's urban areas. Last month, fixed-asset investment grew by around 3.5 percentage points over March in the world’s fastest growing economy, representing a whopping 33.9% year-on-year growth.

A recently receding dollar should help make Nucor more attractive as a seller for this demand than foreign rivals such as Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal (NYSE:MT) and Ternium (NYSE:TX), or Japan's Kobe Steel (OTC: KBSTY).

At around $42 a share, Nucor is still underperforming the market this year. Possibly in part because of some heavy put options buying in the $35-a-share range, which is putting downward pressure on the stock. If those options come into the money (i.e., the stock hits $35), that might be a great opportunity to open a position on the metal maker.

Fool contributor Daniel M. Harrison owns no companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.