The steel industry closed out 1978 on a buoyant note, having operated for more than six months at high capacity despite continued large volumes of imports.
Profit levels in the industry are near those recorded in 1974 and early 1975 when worldwide demand boomed and American steel makers operated at full capacity.
And the early months of 1979 look just as good. Orders are strong for the first three months of the year, and steel makers say they anticipate a good second quarter as well.
But the steel picture for the last half of this year is cloudier. If a recession comes to pas in 1979, as nearly all economists but those who work for the administration anticipate, the industry will feel the pinch, too. But recessions tend to hit the steel industry later than much of the economy (and the steel industry tends to stay down after the economy is on the way back up).
If the recession is a mild one and hits late in the year, 1979 could be a better year than 1978.
That seems to be what major steel companies expect. Although steel demand from auto makers and appliance makers is expected to fall as debt-laden consumers keep their wallets in their pockets, demand from the so-called capital goods industries is expected to stay strong or increase.
Although consumers may buy fewer automobiles, auto makers have expansion and modernization plans on the books. The materials industries such as plastics, paper, cement and lumber also are expanding.
Steel will be needed for oil and gas drilling and for the spate of stores and office buildings that are popping up around the country. Utilities are expanding, state and local government construction is increasing.
About two-thirds of the steel shipped in this country goes to heavy uses such as plant and equipment investment and construction. Steel makers thing that a decline in demand from consumer goods industries will be offset by the capital industries.
David M. Roderick, president of United States Steel Corp., the industry giant, expects domestic makers to ship between 96 million and 100 tons, with the actual amount depending upon the amount of this year's steel imports. Last year, it appears the industry shipped about 96 million tons (most of it domestically, although the industry also exports about 5 millions tosn a year).
Inland Steel Co., the consistently profitable Chicago-based producer, confidently prodicts that the industry will ship 101 million tons of metal next year. And Inland adds that its estimate could prove to be low if the special protections the government gave the steel industry last May are more successful this year in keeping out foreign-made steel than they were in 1978.
Inland's prejection is based on anticipated imports of 19 million tons, about 2 million tons below the 1978 level. Should imports drop to 15 or 16 million tons, domestic shipments could climb even higher, Inland's economists say.
There's reason to believe the socalled trigger price mechanism, which in effect sets minimum prices for steel imports, will shut out a lot of foreign-made steel. The Treasury, which administers the special protection program, raised the trigger prices by 7 percent for the first quarter of 1979, in large part because the Japanese yen has appreciated so much in terms of the dollar.
The trigger prices are based on the costs of making steel in Japan -- reputedly the world's most efficient producer -- and and shipping it to the United States.
Importers complain that the latest Treasury revision in trigger prices eliminates price competition on more more than half the steel products imported into the United States.