While beach-goers, vacationers and others search for warm, sunny days, Donald Trautlein, chairman of Bethlehem Steel Corp. will be scanning the horizon for signs of the economic future of the steel industry.
Trautlein, during an interview last week, said that in July many crucial indicators of the industry's future will be sought, not the least of which will be signs of a general economic recovery, as well as of increased consumer spending because of new federal tax cuts. Meanwhile, the results of a Commerce Department investigation of allegedly unfairly priced steel imports are expected within two weeks.
Other important factors, according to steel industry leaders and analysts, will be whether Congress and the administration can compromise on a reduced-deficit budget that would be expected to lead to lower interest rates.
If the signs point to worse conditions than have prevailed the past 10 months, many steel leaders said, they may have to curtail multimillion-dollar modernization plans intended to help them remain competitive with imports, close more plants, lay off more workers and, in some cases, diversify beyond unprofitable steel making.
So far this year, unemployment in the industry has reached more than 30 percent, several steel makers have reported substantial operating losses in the first quarter, and at least one company, McLouth Steel Corp., is teetering on the brink of collapse, Wall Street analysts said. Steel shipments for the first quarter were 26 1/2 percent below the 1981 period, and the boom in energy-industry pipe, tubing and other oil-related goods has ended, partly because of the oil glut. Steel production has dropped to 49.1 percent of capacity, well below the 70 percent to 75 percent needed to make a profit.
The industry, which the Brookings Institution's Robert Crandall has described as being in "recurrent crisis," started to recover last year after a recession the year before. Then, as with other industries, a decline set in at mid-year. Steel industry leaders who gathered last week in New York for the 90th general meeting of the American Iron and Steel Institute said that their industry has reached a critical juncture.
"I dare say there isn't a steel man in this room who can recall any time during his career, except during strikes and similar unusual occurrences, when raw-steel production has dropped below 50 percent of the industry's capability," Howard M. Love, chairman of National Steel Corp., told his colleagues at the New York convention.
"Because steel is the most widely used metal, our industry's fortunes are tied very much to the whole economy," Love said. "The health of the automotive, machinery, appliance, capital goods, construction and equipment industries is reflected in their demand for steel and consequently in our production schedules--and you know what has happened to those industries, largely as a result of high interest rates."
"What happens in the third quarter and fourth quarter is very important as a signal," said Charles Bradford, an analyst with Merrill Lynch. Bradford said he will be watching what happens to steel buyers' inventories, which have been dropping and should reach bottom around the third quarter. After that, businesses should be ready to buy again.
Bradford also said that if business' fears are calmed by a prudent budget, steel orders may pick up "and the steel industry could turn around and do well very fast."
Industry leaders said they are looking toward a favorable decision by the Commerce Department on June 10 on complaints they filed against steel makers in nine foreign countries charging that they were unfairly subsidized by their governments. Commerce will make a preliminary determination in that case and could levy stiff duties--some retroactively--on the imports.
Some industry experts have suggested that a decision against the importers could mean steel buyers would be more wary of purchasing foreign steel because of the added duties.
However, Bradford said that even if some action is taken against the importers, they can change their product mix to steel nails, screws, bolts or machinery and still sell substantial amounts of steel here.
If the industry doesn't get the relief it wants, steel company officials stressed last week, they would ask Congress to impose steel quotas.
"Imports are the most critical problem facing the domestic steel industry today," Love said.
But Wall Street analysts say the leaders are only fooling themselves and their workers if they think imports are the only critical problem. The analysts see a need to reduce the workers' average salary of $22 an hour, including benefits--which is the highest in manufacturing--while improving their productivity, which is lagging other industrial areas.
The steelworkers' contracts aren't up for renegotiation until next year, and steel industry officials said last week they saw no signs the contracts would be reopened before then.
Even if the third-quarter signs look promising, it will be months before steel orders pick up significantly. Industry results generally lag an increase in consumer spending and a pickup among industries directly serving households, analysts noted.
Moreover, if the industry weathers this crisis, it will still have long-range competitive problems. The industry must improve technology to compete with lighter-weight plastics and ceramics contemplated for use in automobiles and other goods. They may also lose out from an increase in imports of goods using steel, such as cars, which would cut down on business for the U.S. steel makers, a concern expressed by the steel leaders last week.
Some analysts and steel officials advocate diversification as an answer. "It doesn't pay for them to invest money for steel," Bradford of Merrill Lynch said. "Why should they put money in a business earning 6 to 8 percent when they could be earning 15 percent like other American companies are doing?"
"It depends on the company," said Reynold C. MacDonald, chairman of Interlake Inc., a company whose steel making division has dropped from about 60 percent of its business to about 25 percent. "There's been a gradual transition these 10 to 12 years," MacDonald said in an interview. "As a company, how do you invest your money?"
However, David Healy, an analyst with Drexel Burnham Lambert, said diversification isn't for everyone because many steel officials don't know how to operate other kinds of businesses.
Healy predicted that more individual mills--rather than entire firms--will close down in the coming months. Bradford said mini-mills, which make only wire rods and bars, will tend to be more successful, although they are no substitute for the large, integrated mills that have larger production capacity and make a wider range of products.
"We have been shocked out of our complacency and smugness," U.S. Steel Chairman David M. Roderick said. "We now realize that American industry has no manifest destiny to be always first, always right, always best."