When you think about those who benefit from higher steel prices, it's hard not to think of U.S. Steel
It's not too hard to pinpoint the source of U.S. Steel's growth. While the company only shipped 2% more steel, it saw 47% higher prices per ton for its main product (flat-rolled steel) and a blended average of 54% higher prices overall.
The company also pointed out that pricing has firmed after spiking to more than $700 per ton in the fall and then sliding back. Stable high prices would be a boon to steelmakers, but U.S. Steel is taking nothing for granted: It's trying to lock-in these high prices by finalizing contracts that will last from one to three years.
While U.S. Steel is unusual in that it's largely self-sufficient when it comes to coke and iron ore requirements, the company does need additional raw materials and (of course) energy to produce its steel. As such, the company is starting to see price increases in these inputs and believes that those increases will start to impact profit growth in 2005.
Once thought to be doomed by a combination of high debt and high pension costs, U.S. Steel is taking advantage of the steel boom to shore up its finances. It repaid more than $500 million of debt in 2004 and took strides to reduce its pension funding deficits. Not content to simply fill its own coffers, the company has hiked its dividend for shareholders by 60% (to $0.08 a share).
With a cleaner balance sheet, strong pricing, and a plan to ship as much as 15% more steel in 2005, U.S. Steel has clearly turned things around. That said, it's still a cyclical company, and these halcyon days won't last forever. But trading at less than 7 times trailing earnings and sporting an EV/FCF ratio of 6, its shares merit attention from Fools seeking a bit of exposure to basic materials.
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Fool contributor Stephen Simpson holds a CFA. He has no ownership interest in any of the stocks mentioned here.