What: United States Steel Corp. (NYSE:X) saw its shares drop around 12% last month. That's not a great way to start the new year. But the shares were down about 70% last year, so the January drop was pretty much just more of the same.
So what: Not much has changed for U.S. Steel in the new year. Steel prices remain under pressure from global oversupply and U.S. Steel is still heavily reliant on expensive blast furnaces, which use coal and iron ore as major inputs. How bad is it? In late January, the company reported a full-year 2015 loss, including one-time charges, of over $10 a share. Even taking out the charges the company still lost $1.79 a share.
So the drop in January was just the market recognizing that things haven't improved for the steel market or, in this instance, U.S. Steel. In fact, the company's outlook for 2016 is for "significant headwinds and uncertainty" to continue. No wonder investors are down on the shares. But the month wasn't particularly good to any of the steel makers, with fellow blast furnace user AK Steel (NYSE:AKS) down around 9% for the month.
On the flip side, Nucor (NYSE:NUE) and Steel Dynamics (NASDAQ:STLD), which both use lower-cost electric arc furnaces, were down 3% and up 2.5%, respectively, in January. That's a much better showing. And it's worth noting that in 2015 the shares of these two competitors fared much better than U.S. Steel, with Nucor down 18% and Steel Dynamics falling just 10%.
Now what: Investors looking to the beleaguered steel industry for a contrarian play would probably be best to avoid U.S. Steel and its higher-cost blast furnace business (AK Steel is another one to be leery of). There's a great deal of upside opportunity if the company can survive this deep and lengthy industry downturn, but it simply isn't the best operator in the industry. The better option would be to stick with the industry's top performers, operationally and performance wise, such as Nucor and Steel Dynamics.