U.S. Steel Corp., the nation’s biggest producer of the metal by volume, is making a comeback in debt markets as vehicle sales recover, fueling a surge in its bond prices from a record low.
The Pittsburgh-based steelmaker’s benchmark debenture has climbed above 100 cents on the dollar, or par, for the first time since August after plunging to 87.75 cents on Oct. 5, the lowest since the debt was sold in March 2010. Credit-default swaps on the company are trading at an almost five-month low.
Auto production, which accounts for 24 percent of all steel shipped in the U.S., is at the highest levels since 2008 as carmakers respond to rising consumer confidence. At the same time, steel prices are up 15 percent since November as growth in the world’s biggest economy eases stress from Europe’s three- year debt crisis. U.S. Steel, America’s first $1 billion company after its creation at the turn of the 20th century by Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan, made at least 21 percent of its revenue the past three quarters from its European unit.
“Europe is not a nice place to be in the steel business now, but it doesn’t seem to have really pushed its way into the U.S.,” Monica Bonar, a New York-based analyst for Fitch Ratings, said in a telephone interview. “Two bright spots are energy and automotive, and people have upwardly revised where they see the economy going.”
U.S. Steel’s $600 million of 7.375 percent bonds due April 2020 have climbed 12 cents on the dollar since Oct. 5 to 100.5 cents, trading above par for the first time since Aug. 3, according to Trace, the bond price reporting system of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority. The yield on the debt fell to 7.29 percent from as high as 9.5 percent.
Relative yields on the steelmaker’s bonds average 558 basis points, or 5.58 percentage points, down from 597 on Oct. 24, when it was cut one level by Moody’s Investors Service to Ba3, three levels below investment grade. As U.S. Steel’s spreads narrowed, those for its speculative-grade peers expanded during the same period to an average of 750 basis points from 736 basis points, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch index data.
The company had $3.9 billion of total debt outstanding as of Sept. 30, according to a regulatory filing.
Erin DiPietro, a spokeswoman for U.S. Steel, didn’t immediately comment.
U.S. Steel was formed by the merger of 10 companies that combined furnaces, ore deposits and transportation units into what was conceived as a trust, according to business historian Hoover’s Inc. Carnegie, whose Carnegie Steel was the largest, wanted to retire, and banker J.P. Morgan paid him almost $500 million in a bid to merge with his own Federal Steel.
Auto Sales Climb
The company produced 67 percent of the country’s steel in its first year, and it prospered through the two World Wars. The U.S. steel industry ran into trouble in the 1970s as materials costs rose and international competition increased, according to Hoover’s.
The steelmaker’s debt-market recovery this year follows the best year for auto sales since 2008. U.S. auto sales increased to 12.8 million last year, up from 13.2 million in 2008, according to Autodata Corp.
The larger sales allowed General Motors Co. to reclaim the top spot in world vehicle sales from Japan’s Toyota Motor Corp. and begin 24-hour-a-day production at many plants for the first time since the industry collapsed in 2009.
Auto production reached 8.9 million last month, 16 percent higher than a year earlier and the most for a December since 2007, according to Federal Reserve data compiled by Bloomberg.
Of the steel produced in the U.S. in 2010, 24 percent went to customers in the automotive industry, according to data from the American Iron and Steel Institute. GM, Chrysler Group LLC, Ford Motor Co. and Toyota are four of U.S. Steel’s largest customers by revenue, according to Bloomberg data.
The U.S. economy expanded in the final three months of 2011 at a 3 percent annual rate, the strongest since the second quarter of 2010, according to the median forecast of economists surveyed by Bloomberg. The unemployment rate fell to 8.5 percent last month, the lowest since February 2009, as employers added 200,000 workers to payrolls, exceeding the 155,000 median projection in a Bloomberg News survey.
“Back in the summer there was a lot of fear we were going into a double-dip recession,” Timothy Hayes, an analyst at Davenport & Co. in Richmond, Virginia, said in a Jan. 11 interview. “Those fears have been put to rest.”
The average annual capacity utilization of U.S. steelmakers climbed to 75 percent in 2011 from 51 percent in 2009, the year steelmakers idled 30 percent of their capacity after the housing crisis and global financial meltdown.
The price of hot-rolled steel coil, a benchmark product used in autos and appliances, has jumped 15 percent since November to $735 a short ton, according to data from Steel Business Briefing.
Improving demand is “largely from the capital goods industry, the automotive industry and the energy industry recovering close to or sometimes a little better than where they were prior to the crash,” Aldo Mazzaferro, a New York-based analyst at Macquarie Capital USA Inc., said in a telephone interview.
The growth has raised a measure of the credit rating that is implied in the credit-default swaps market, where traders effectively downgraded them into deeper junk levels in October, data from Moody’s Corp.’s capital markets group shows.
Credit swaps tied to the company, which typically rise as investor confidence deteriorates and fall as it improves, fell to 690 basis points today, the lowest since Sept. 1, from 966 basis points on Oct. 4, according to data provider CMA. A basis point equals $1,000 annually on a contract protecting $10 million of debt.
The swaps are trading at levels that imply a B2 rating by Moody’s Investors Service, higher than the B3 rating the market was implying in October and two steps lower than its actual Moody’s grade of Ba3.
U.S. Steel shares have fallen 46 percent in the 12 months ending yesterday to $28.28, while a Standard & Poor’s index of materials producers fell 2.2 percent during the same period. The stock is up 26 percent since Oct. 25, the day after Moody’s cut the company’s rating, citing a high debt to Ebitda, or leverage, ratio of 6.4 times as of June 30.
“We expect disappointing guidance” for the first quarter, Sal Tharani, an analyst at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. in New York, wrote in a Jan. 11 research note. If steel prices start to slip, he wrote, the company “would underperform the most due to its high leverage to steel prices.”
U.S. Steel generated $340 million of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization in the third quarter, up from $30 million in the year-over-year period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That is lower than the $354 million estimated by KDP Investment Advisors, a high-yield debt research firm, according to an Oct. 27 report.
The company posted an operating loss of $50 million in Europe for the third quarter, double its deficit from a year earlier, Bloomberg data show. Revenue from U.S. Steel Europe made up 21.1 percent of its total in that quarter.
“The fourth quarter turned out to be a little bit better than everyone had anticipated but you still need a broader-based U.S. economic recovery, not to mention a global recovery, to really see the sustainability of that,” Carol Cowan, a Moody’s analyst, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a slow recovery for the industry and U.S. Steel is no different in that respect.”