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Steel maker Nucor Corp.'s (NYSE: NUE) stock has rallied some 51% from its March 3 low of $29.84 a share and has twice bumped against its recent high of $49.91 a share.
The stock is still a far cry from its record-high level of $83.56, but is only 0% below its 52-week high of $53.46. Much has changed since then, as the U.S. auto industry is no longer producing the 16 million cars it produced in 2007, nor the 13 million it managed to sell last year. This year we are looking at some 10 million units sold, according to J.D. Power and Associates, the leading forecaster in the industry.
But there is encouraging news: The very quick restructuring of both General Motors Corp. (NYSE: GRM) and Chrysler Group LLC, the U.S. Federal Reserve's efforts to stabilize the financial markets, and the U.S. government's fiscal stimulus plans have helped keep the economy from falling into a depression. The Fed's support for the auto industry included buying auto receivables under the Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility (TALF) program, in order to restart this type of securitization.
Therefore, the paralysis of sales that we saw late last year, when the financial system froze and there was no financing available, has subsided and sales are increasing. In fact, J.D. Power expects U.S. vehicle sales to increase to 11.5 million units next year, a full 15% pickup from projected 2009 levels.
In fact, we are already seeing an increase in auto sales already, thanks in no small part to the government's Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS), popularly known as "Cash for Clunkers." So far, CARS has spent some $1.29 billion and Congress has expanded the original $1 billion authorization by another $2 billion.
Total light vehicle sales for July were just shy of 1 million units, a milestone the industry hasn't topped since August 2008, mostly due to the program's success.
This shot in the arm on the back of the general cost restructuring that Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) is carrying out under Allan Mulally has already .
Similarly, Chrysler has reported that it is running two plants in overtime and a third shift at another plant just to keep up with demand. And GM, which is seeing a huge rebound in sales, will add to this by increasing advertising spending and selling new cars on eBay Inc.'s (Nasdaq: EBAY) popular online auction Web site. Most of Wall Street is in "wait-and-see" mode, which gives us more of an incentive to jump in. But the steel story is not just about cars.
Nucor will not only profit from the remaining $1.75 billion to be deployed through the government's cash for clunkers program and the general improvement in market conditions, but on the pick-up in government construction in the United States that will result from U.S. President Barack Obama's massive fiscal stimulus.
Additionally, the company will benefit from the already massive stimuli being deployed in China, Brazil, India and Russia. And let us not forget Europe, where the European Central Bank will soon consider raising its benchmark lending rate to 1.25% from its current record low of 1% in order to prevent inflationary expectations from building up.
China will achieve more than 8% growth this year, driven by public spending, especially in construction and a strong pickup in auto sales (up 63.6% in July from a year earlier) and domestic appliances. All of these have a very high content of steel.
Similarly, India's gross domestic product (GDP) will grow by more than 6%, barely down from last year's 6.7% expansion. Auto sales in India jumped 18% last month. Remember that India's Tata Motors Ltd. (NYSE ADR: TTM) launched the cheapest car in the world last January and this is likely to work wonders in today's budget-conscious market.
So what about Nucor itself?
The company reported a second quarter loss of $133 million, which improved over the first quarter's $189 million loss. But the key is that volumes are already turning around.
Volumes increased 11% in the second quarter, which allowed the company to increase its capacity utilization from 45% to a still very low 46%.
And this is where the upside lies.
In capital-intensive industries like steel, the very high fixed costs induce very large swings in profits, depending on volumes. And not only did Nucor see its volumes pick up in the second quarter, the trend should continue accelerating in the third quarter and beyond, thanks to the recent burst in car sales and increased government infrastructure spending.
In addition, prior to the cash for clunkers program, Nucor announced it already expected to see an improvement in its third-quarter results. The company said that many of its customers had run their inventories too low and would need to replenish them just to meet demand.
So, at reporting time, investors could be very positively surprised by Nucor and many other companies in the sector, which will provoke many analysts to increase their stock targets.
And to make the whole story even better, we are counting on increasing inflationary expectations and a weaker dollar, which will continue to drive portfolio managers to hedge this risk in commodity stocks.
That means Nucor, which has been bumping into strong resistance levels since the beginning of January, but making higher lows in every subsequent correction, is likely to break out of its current range with an explosive rally before it even reports third-quarter earnings.
Nucor stock closed down 92 cents, or 1.93%, Friday at $46.79 a share.
Recommendation: Buy Nucor (NYSE: NUE) at market (**).
(**) Special Note of Disclosure: Horacio Marquez holds no interest in Nucor (NYSE: NUE).
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