Stainless Steel

Fifty years ago the steel industry was dominated by behemoths like U.S. Steel and Bethlehem Steel, which all by themselves accounted for a substantial chunk of the industrial sector. Those days are long gone, and America’s top steel maker today is a smaller, more nimble company that has learned how to profit in a much more competitive environment.

That company is Nucor (NYSE: NUE), based in Charlotte, North Carolina. It is the largest steel company in the U.S., with roughly 27 million tons of production capacity. The stock price has fallen in recent weeks due to concerns about rising Chinese imports and volatile commodity prices. But the company has been a consistent performer in the past, and we expect it to remain one in the future.

The firm’s board of directors recently declared the regular quarterly cash dividend of $0.3725 per share on Nucor’s common stock.  This is Nucor’s 169th consecutive quarterly cash dividend.

Nucor and its affiliates have operating facilities primarily in the U.S. and Canada. The products produced include carbon and alloy steel — in bars, beams, sheet and plate; steel piling; steel joists and joist girders; steel deck; fabricated concrete reinforcing steel; cold finished steel; steel fasteners; metal building systems; steel grating and expanded metal; and wire and wire mesh.

Nucor’s balance sheet looks strong: good cash flow from operations, reasonable debt levels compared to others in its industry, and a notable return on equity.

For years, the North Carolina-based company fought in court, and on Capitol Hill in Washington, against what it calls “low-priced imported steel” invading the U.S. borders. In fact, Nucor’s chief executive officer, John Ferriola, has a harsher term, citing “a tsunami of imported steel” coming into the U.S.

The trade issue involved so-called price undercutting by foreign steel suppliers, a practice that U.S. steel companies like Nucor want to abolish. Increasingly, the federal government (primarily the U.S. Commerce Department) is starting to see the issue the steel industry’s way, and has increased the duties on steel pipe deliveries from Mexico, Turkey, and South Korea, in recent cases.

Nucor is really beginning to show signs of industrial size strength, based on the company’s current quarter financials, and a revised, upward-looking outlook for the remainder of 2015.

The company’s third-quarter outlook is bullish based on a few emerging factors, such as an improved commercial construction market across the U.S., and stronger revenues from its downstream products business. Up and running operations that have suffered outages should also add to revenues in Q3, the company reports.

“We currently expect to see a stronger improvement in earnings for the third quarter.  Although non-residential construction markets remain at historically low levels, they are improving at a moderate pace,” Nucor reports. “We therefore expect further increased operating profits in our downstream products businesses. Steel mill profitability is also expected to improve in the third quarter as our Nucor-Yamato Steel division has no planned outage and sheet and plate margins continue to benefit from positive pricing trends. We also expect improvement in the performance of the Louisiana DRI facility in the third quarter, with profitable performance anticipated by the end of the year. “

Size matters, too, especially as Nucor gets the legal backing it’s looking for on the import issue. The company is also remarkably free of layoff worries and labor tensions, a stellar achievement in an industry where the number of jobs has been cut in half over the past 30 years. (Nucor ties its employee compensation packages directly to company performance, giving NUE’s employees more of a vested interest in their performance than other industry competitors, leading to a highly motivated workforce.)

NUE’s share price of 43 looks like a great deal, especially since its price-earnings ratio has improved to around 20. The stock is a buy up to 50.

Tom Scarlett is an investment analyst at Personal Finance and Investing Daily.