U.S. Steel (X): Deutsche upgrades to Buy; Goldman calls bottom in space

Steel stocks are getting very supportive comments from two tier-1 firms this morning:

– Deutsche Bank is upgrading both U.S. Steel (NYSE:X) and AK Steel (NYSE:AKS) to Buy from Hold with $56 & $17.50 price targets respectively.

Firm notes they could think of many appropriate titles for this report, but in a nutshell, they now view steel dynamics and investor sentiment as nearly the inverse of early 2011 when they downgraded the sector. Their upgrade is largely based on valuation, but they also believe that steel prices are nearing a ‘floor’. Buy AKS and X in anticipation of steel price and demand inflection.

Steel correction healthy (necessary) and prices poised to bottom
DB says they viewed the HRC push to $900/st as negative, and reported average prices have declined to $740-750/st. Meanwhile, ‘unreported’ prices are below $700/st and inline with prior ‘correction’ expectation. They now forecast that benchmark US HRC prices will average $830/mt in ‘11 ($753/st) and $772/mt in ‘12 ($700/st); increased ~1% vs prior. Also, firm’s demand outlook is unchanged as they expected NA growth of 7% and 5% in ’11-‘12 and global gains of 8% and 6% respectively. Catalysts: steel prices and apparent consumption; seasonal trade could come earlier than normal

Deutsche believes that steel prices are approaching cost support (marginal cost) and could ultimately push supply out of the market. Scrap prices have been more supportive than expected in recent months and trade contacts suggest that nearterm (ex July) prices will be flat-to-up. Further, downtime announcements are likely forthcoming which they’d view as positive, if weakness persists (add’l declines of $100+/st are possible). Also, global steel prices are to become more supported including in China where they believe inventories and steel prices are near bottom. On demand, they expect the ‘buyers strike’ to end soon…here they find it interesting that recent conversations with consumers have focused on supply risks and when asked, most contacts recognize that end-demand remains ‘ok. Also, they anticipate some improvements in industrial activity in 2H (ex. autos), and net-net, the firm thinks the seasonal steel ‘trade’ could begin earlier this year.

Valuation: risk-reward more favorable; AKS & X to Buy
DB notes their PTs imply average upside of 27% and steel stocks are near the low-end of trading ranges. AK Steel and US Steel shares are near levels from late ‘10 when US HRC was below $550/st. Also, their EV/t analysis shows that AKS and X are ‘cheap’ vs peers and historical trends, and their ‘what’s priced in’ analysis suggests the market is assuming below avg margins – AK appears particularly attractive using this tool. Regarding AK, the firm hasn’t recommended it since early ‘10 and it has been a laggard on cost/other concerns.

– Goldman Sachs is out with a Scrap Steel sector call noting their latest channel checks indicate an upward bias (around $20 per ton) for July scrap prices, which is highly unusual considering seasonality and indeed very positive for providing cost support to steel prices. Almost all the input material costs (iron ore, coking coal and scrap) are either stable or rising going into seasonally slow summer months which underscores our view that steel prices could be close to a bottom.

Steel demand could also surprise to the upside in 3Q
Firm notes they had earlier estimated that the industry utilization rate would move close to 80% in seasonally strong spring period and then come down as we head into the summer months. Although this did not occur, they are pleased to see a steady state of demand and utilization rate hovering around 75%. Goldman believes that a typical summer slowdown in demand could be of a much lesser magnitude this year as auto industry is recovering at a rapid pace from the Japanese earthquake related supply chain disruptions.

Mini-mill margins at tipping point; steel prices should see support
Goldman notes that historically they have seen that when steel price reaches close to the cost of the lowest cost producers (mini-mills), it generally signals a bottom. And if there is some support from demand, prices generally bounce back. With expectations of busheling scrap to be around $530 per ton in July, they estimate mini-mill cost at around $680 per ton for HRC. At current level between $700 and $740 per ton, the firm sees very limited room for further degradation in steel prices. Barring any major downward correction in scrap prices in coming months, they believe that steel prices could bottom at above $700 per ton in this cycle, a very positive outcome considering that last year’s bottom was at round $540.

Notablecalls: Deutsche almost caught the recent top with their Steel sector downgrade, so with the firm now turning positive, people will likely take notice.

Regarding Goldman, this is a Scrap Steel call but as many industry watchers probably agree, scrap tends to lead the sector moves. I very much enjoyed reading their mini-mill comments.

So, with two tier-1 firms calling the bottom in Steel names, we can expect a strong upside move in the names today. The whole sector should be up.

My poison of choice is U.S. Steel (NYSE:X) which I think is the best mover in the group. I think the stock can do $45+ today.

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