Nucor Outlook Highlights Unsure Steel Recovery

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- As more dour data from the manufacturing industries highlighted the uncertainty of this economic recovery, and investor sentiment continued to darken, the country's largest steelmaker, Nucor (NUE), offered a mixed outlook Wednesday.

In its traditional mid-quarter financial update, the Charlotte, N.C.-based company offered a profit forecast for its second period that appeared to fall below analysts' expectations. Nucor told investors that it would likely post per-share earnings between 75 cents and 80 cents. The consensus among 10 Wall Street analysts was earnings of 87 cents. (Nucor said the projected range includes an expected LIFO accounting charge of 6 cents a share. Stripping out the charge would boost Nucor's EPS.)

As Nucor strove to point out, the second-quarter numbers would represent year-over-year growth of between 160% and 180%.

"I wouldn't make much of the fact that the range is a little below consensus estimates," said Bridgett Freas, an analyst at Morningstar in Chicago, in an email. "Actual results may come in right in line with consensus and a little conservatism in the range is to be expected."

On most counts, Nucor was bullish enough as to seem contrarian, given the current market direction and the steady chain of downbeat economic data.

"We continue to believe that end markets such as automotive, heavy equipment, energy, and general manufacturing have experienced some real demand improvement," the company said in a statement.

Yet those words appeared to represent a shift. When the company reported first-quarter results, Nucor said that it was "seeing some signs of market weakness that may impact results near the end of the second quarter."

Nucor shares on Wednesday bucked the downward draft in the broader equities markets, rising as much as 2% before easing back. Shares of the mini-mill operator, which chiefly uses old scrap metal to make steel, were trading recently at $40.93, up 0.5% from the previous close. Volume was heaving, reaching 1 million shares just 30 minutes into the trading day. Average daily turnover over the last three months has been about 3 million shares.

Nucor in recent weeks has pushed home price hikes on its key steel products, along with competitors such as AK Steel ( AKS) and the North American mills owned by Russia's Steverstal, among others.

The moves had been seen as a sign that steel prices had found a bottom. Morgan Stanley issued a buoyant report last week that predicted an upturn in market fundamentals for this most fundamental of industrial sectors.

In Wednesday's update, though, Nucor gave little detail on its view of the rest of the year. Some market watchers are cautious.

"While demand is improving, it is still a slow climb and raw material costs remain high," said Freas, adding that profits across the steel industry will likely fall off in the third and fourth quarters.

Mark Parr, an analyst at KeyBanc in Cleveland, also advised caution on Nucor shares, at least until the construction business shows some signs of life. Steel made by mini-mills -- I-beams, for example -- are largely used in buildings.

"Although the dividend yield is becoming increasingly attractive, our view of choppy bounce along the bottom in non-residential construction markets ... will keep investors hesitant to move the stock meaningfully higher than the $40-$45/range near term, in our view," Parr said in a note to clients Wednesday.

Shares of steelmakers were mixed Wednesday, with U.S. Steel ( X), AK Steel and Steel Dynamics ( STLD) all inching higher. ArcelorMittal, the world's biggest steel producer, was down nearly 2%.

-- Written by Scott Eden in New York

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