Like so many other companies, U.S. Steel's (NYSE:X) third-quarter results improved sequentially, but didn't come close to the comparable quarter a year ago. Beyond that, it doesn't appear that the steelmaker will be able to escape the loss bugaboo in the fourth quarter.

In its most recent quarter, the United States' largest steel manufacturer turned in a loss of $303 million. And while that topped the loss of $392 million in the June quarter, it wasn't close to the $919 million in year-ago earnings. Revenue of $7.3 billion last year slid to $2.8 billion in the most recent quarter. The per-share line fell from earnings of $7.79 a year ago to a loss of $2.11 in the period ended in September.

U.S. Steel operates through three divisions: flat-rolled, U.S. Steel Europe, and tubular. The flat-rolled steel, which accounted for 67% of the firm's $1.3 billion in operational profits a year ago, lost $370 million in the quarter, tacking on an additional $8 million in losses sequentially. The European operation managed to eke out $7 million to the upside, compared to a loss of $53 million last quarter. And the tubular unit, much of whose product is used in the oil patch, lost $21 million, versus $88 million last quarter.

So the sequential results (which become far more important in a time of rapidly changing business conditions), while improving on an aggregate basis, were mixed for the company. This reflects a steel industry that is showing very little uniformity these days. For instance, Steel Dynamics (NASDAQ:STLD) racked up a solid profit this quarter, and AK Steel (NYSE:AKS) managed a small gain, versus a loss in the prior quarter. At the same time, Nucor (NYSE:NUE) trimmed its prior quarter loss, but wildly missed last year's strong earnings.

Looking ahead, as CEO John Surma noted on his company's conference call, "We expect to report an overall operating loss in the fourth quarter, due primarily to continued low operating rates and idled facility carrying costs for our flat rolled and tubular segments." From my perspective, the company is at the mercy of macro conditions. Absent stronger demand for the sort of products turned out by Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), General Motors, and Ford (NYSE:F), U.S. Steel may continue to struggle.

In the meantime, I wouldn't hurry out to buy what we used to call "Big Steel." There are lots of companies that are far more compelling in today's market.

U.S. Steel has been awarded four-star status by Motley Fool CAPS players. Maybe you should check in to the company's CAPS page and let us know how you'd rate it.  

Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned. He welcomes your comments. The Fool has a disclosure policy.