CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- Nucor ( NUE), the nation's largest steelmaker, spilled red ink in the fourth quarter -- a narrower loss than was expected -- but offered a more upbeat outlook than it has in recent memory, saying it will return to profitability in the first period of 2011. Nucor brings up the rear as far as fourth-quarter earnings from the nation's major steelmakers. Reaction to Nucor's positive temper in the stock market was muted. The company's shares were falling 2% to $45.52 in late morning trading Thursday. In its regular quarterly account on the state of the steel industry, Nucor said its end markets "are experiencing some real demand improvement that will continue throughout 2011." Utilization rates have continued to improve in January, the company said, "and we expect the trend to continue as we progress through the first quarter." The company expects recent price hikes across its range of steel products to give its bottom line a boost, helping it return to profitability in the first quarter. "We are therefore cautiously optimistic regarding first half volume, pricing and profitability," Nucor said. But the company also warned that those improved operating rates are the result not only of improving demand but customers hoping to buy up products before prices get hiked even more, because of the continual rise in raw materials costs. " It remains to be seen how much of this improvement is due to real demand," Nucor said. The construction business, of course, which is Nucor's chief end market, remains "challenging." For the fourth quarter, Nucor reported an operating loss of $11.4 million, or 2 cents a share. That's better than the loss of 10 cents to 15 cents that Nucor told Wall Street to expect when it released its typical mid-quarter guidance in December. Analysts were expecting the company to lose 10 cents a share. A year ago, Nucor was barely in the black, earning $23.5 million, or 7 cents a share. Revenue fells 7% to $3.85 billion, which was about what Wall Street was expecting.
It was a fairly rough fourth quarter, all in all, for steel producers, despite a well-documented series of price hikes put in place by the industry in response to soaring costs for all the crucial steel feedstocks: iron ore, coking coal and scrap metal. Still, most companies offered upbeat outlooks, buoyed by what they see as an ongoing recovery in most of their end markets (automobiles, appliances, oil and gas equipment), with the notable exception of construction. U.S. Steel ( X) lost money again, but expects "modest improvement" in results in the first quarter. Steel Dynamics ( STLD) missed expectations with a narrow profit, but said the first quarter would be "substantially improved." AK Steel ( AKS) couldn't find a profit, either, but gladdened investors with an outlook that didn't appear to be ruined by soaring raw materials costs, which has hurt the West Chester company more than its peers. -- Written by Scott Eden in New York >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Scott Eden. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/ScottEden. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: email@example.com.