NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Nucor ( NUE) cautioned that its first-quarter earnings will likely fall below Wall Street expectations, but investors shrugged off that short-term forecast, preferring to focus on the good news implicit in heightened capacity at its steel mills.Nucor, which often releases a quarterly preview of its results, said it expects to post a per-share bottom line anywhere from a loss of 5 cents to a profit of 5 cents for the first period, which ends April 3. That EPS number includes an inventory-adjustment charge of $23 million (related to its last-in-first-out, or LIFO, accounting measures). That translates to about a nickel per share. Analysts were expecting Nucor to post net income of 15 cents a share in the quarter, according to a poll by Thomson Reuters. Nucor's predictions would be far better than the loss of 60 cents the company reported in the year-ago first quarter, at the depths of the recession. Shares of the scrap-metal recycler and mini-mill operator ended trading Tuesday at $46.07, up 95 cents, or 2% from the previous close. Nucor said its orders from its steel mills will likely increase by 23% compared with a year ago. Production and shipments, meanwhile, will grow by 26% and 20%, the company said. Mills that fabricate sheet and plate steel will, Nucor expects, operate at 85% and 90% capacity in the first quarter, respectively. That's up from the same period of 2009, when those mills were at 63% and 68%, Nucor said. "The strong growth in orders likely indicates that current operating rates are sustainable for at least another quarter," analyst Mark Parr, of KeyBanc Capital Markets, wrote in a note to clients. He attributed the company's strong sheet-metal capacity to "continued positive momentum" from the auto industry.
Elsewhere among steelmaker stocks Tuesday, U.S. Steel ( X) gained 3% to $62.49, Steel Dynamics ( STLD) rose 2.3% to $18.21, and AK Steel ( AKS) advanced 1.7% to $23.40. American depositary receipts of the offshore steel giants were also in positive territory Tuesday. ArcelorMittal ( MT), the world's largest steel company, saw its ADRs gain 3.6% to $43.59, while Russia's Mechel ( symbol) added nearly 4% to end the session at $26.84. Over the last month, Nucor had been at the periphery of two takeover rumors, with speculation that the company might be angling for an acquisition. The scuttlebutt involved both AK Steel and Fort Worth, Texas-based Commercial Metals ( CMC), whose shares closed Tuesday at $17.19, up 0.6%. -- Written by Scott Eden in New York Follow TheStreet.com on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.