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Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. (NASDAQ:SCHN)

F1Q08 Earnings Call

January 7, 2008 11:30 am ET

Executives

John D. Carter - President, Chief Executive Officer, Director

Richard D. Peach - Chief Financial Officer, Vice President

Analysts

John Rogers - D.A. Davidson & Co.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

Eric Prouty - Canaccord Adams

Phillip Gibbs - Keybanc Capital Markets

Operator

Good day and welcome to the first quarter 2008 Schnitzer Steel Industries Incorporated earnings conference call. (Operator Instructions)

Before we begin, we need to remind you that the company’s presentation and discussion today contains forward-looking statements subject to the Safe Harbor provisions of the federal securities laws, including estimates of future performance and views on future market trends. Actual results may differ materially from those projected in the forward-looking statements. Examples of factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from current expectations are listed in our earnings press release issued this morning and are described in detail under the headings factors that could affect future results in the management’s discussion and analysis section of the company’s most recent quarterly report on Form 10-Q and most recent annual report on Form 10-K.

I would now like to turn the presentation over to your host for today’s conference, Mr. John Carter, President and Chief Executive Officer. Sir, you may proceed.

John D. Carter

Thank you and good morning. Welcome to Schnitzer Steel Industries’ 2008 first quarter earnings webcast and conference call. I am joined on the call this morning by Richard Peach, our Chief Financial Officer. After a few introductory remarks, we will be available to answer your questions.

We put out a press release this morning with the details of our first quarter results. On our call today, we will be hitting the highlights of what occurred during the quarter and key trends in each of our businesses.

In the quarter, all three of our businesses performed well, both operationally and financially, despite continuing pressures on transportation costs in our metals recycling business and on raw material costs in our steel business.

On a consolidated basis, our revenues were up 18% and operating income and earnings per share increased 23% when compared to the first quarter of last year. The higher revenues were reflective of both our continued focus on maximizing throughput as well as positive market conditions.

We continue to see signs that the long-term fundamentals supporting our businesses remain strong. Worldwide steel production figures in the use of [electric] furnace technology continued to rise, which in turn creates demand for scrap metal.

Coupled with a relatively tight supply of scrap, we believe these factors should support pricing, which has been sustainable at historically high levels. That’s not to say there won’t be also market volatility. That’s why we continue to emphasize it is important to evaluate our businesses over several quarters.

I mentioned earlier that we perform well despite some significant challenges. Let me elaborate. In the metals recycling business, it is certainly no secret that ocean freight costs have risen dramatically over the last few months not just for scrap but for all commodities. Not only have the costs been increasing but the supply of ships has also been tight.

In a market where the demand is strong, particularly overseas, it is reasonable to expect that over time, these increased freight costs could be passed through to the customer. As we discussed on our last call, it takes the market time to adjust, particularly when the changes are dramatic and rapid.

Much of the increase in freight costs during the quarter occurred after we had negotiated our sales prices. As a result, margins on those export sales in which we took the freight risk were squeezed.

While gross sales prices did increase compared to the fourth quarter, they were more than offset by the rise in freight costs and net export prices in our processing business declined $12 a ton. This occurred during a time when domestic prices, which drive our buying costs, were on the rise.

The freight impact was not only related to costs. Ship availability was also an issue. During the quarter, there were times when vessels of the size used to transport scrap were not attainable at any reasonable price. As a result, we moved five shipments of ferrous scrap into the second quarter despite having the inventory available and customers willing to take delivery.

As I’ll discuss in a moment, we are cautiously optimistic that these issues were the product of unusual circumstances that do not appear to be in place during the second quarter.

During the quarter, we shipped 1 million tons of ferrous from our processing operation and 89 million pounds of non-ferrous, with both being higher on a year-over-year basis but down from the fourth quarter.

Our ferrous trading volumes were down pretty sharply both quarter over quarter and year over year, with the flow of material out of Russia being tighter than normal and customer demand in our primary trading markets in the Mediterranean being down as well.

Overall, our customer base continued to be diversified as we took advantage of our global reach to sell into 14 countries. Steel mills in Malaysia and Turkey were the largest customers and demand overall was stronger in Asia than it was in the Mediterranean.

There has been a fair amount of industry discussion about the use of shipping containers to carry scrap to overseas destinations. During the quarter, we did increase our container volumes and made investments in equipment that will improve our ability to ship product by this means. Flexibility to meet customer demand requirements is important and we want to continue to have it. However, we also believe that container volumes, while increasing, are not expected to replace bulk shipments as the preferred method for delivering scrap overseas. They are unlikely to represent a material amount of our overall export volumes.

We should also note a couple of interesting trends regarding containers. First, it appears that container rates are starting to increase. While there is still a fairly sizable cost advantage for containers versus bulk shipments, the advantage is starting to narrow. Second and more importantly, the availability of containers for scrap has become limited in certain areas, partly because of increased demand as an alternative to bulk shipments for other products and partly because some of the customer container owners view scrap as less desirable material because of the damage it can do to the containers.

This is an interesting trend to watch because while it probably won’t have a big impact on our exports, it might have an impact on our competitors who don’t have the ability to ship in bulk.

This summer, we completed the installation of a mega shredder at our Portland export facility and we were pleased with the operation of that machine during the first quarter. As with the other three shredders we’ve installed, it will also take a few months for the new machine to fully ramp up but everything we’ve seen so far indicates we are on schedule to achieve the expected benefits.

We continue to see improvements in back-end sorting technology. During the quarter, we took down the non-ferrous line at our Boston facility to install new equipment, which we expect to provide even greater recovery of non-ferrous material from the shredding stream. That installation took about three weeks and while it had a minor delay in impact on our Zorba volumes and revenues, those will be made up in coming quarters.

We continue to be active in pursuing acquisitions. Since the end of the year, we’ve closed on a car-crushing operation in Maine and metals recycling facilities in Alabama and Georgia, both of which were announced with our year-end results. These additions are consistent with our strategy of expanding our presence within our existing footprint and strengthening our position in the areas in which we operate.

The metals recycling industry remains highly fragmented and we expect to continue to be an active participant in the ongoing industry consolidation.

Turning to the steel manufacturing business, year-over-year revenues were up 14%, primarily due to a $55 increase in average net prices and a 4,000 ton increase in volumes. Sequentially, we did see softness in West Coast demand as both volumes and prices declined, although that decline was from a fourth quarter with record -- quarterly record prices.

The steel business was one of the areas where we faced challenges -- in this case, related to the costs of raw materials used in steel making. The decline in operating income both year over year and quarter over quarter is primarily related to increased cost for scrap, alloys, [plexis] and electrodes. Compared to the first quarter of last year, these costs increased more than the increase in net sales prices. Compared to the fourth quarter, these costs actually went up as prices came down.

As you know, the mill gets 100% of its scrap from our metals recycling business so the increases in scrap costs are somewhat offset on a consolidated basis but the higher cost for the other non-scrap raw materials do impact the bottom line. The mill was able to offset some of the increased scrap cost by improving yield loss, which has been a major focus of both our steel and metals recycling teams.

In the auto parts business, year-over-year revenues were up 19% and operating income was up 90%, with the improvements driven by higher car volumes. At the end of last year’s first quarter, we implemented changes to our purchasing model that emphasized increasing the number of scrap vehicles being processed through our facilities. As a result of the continued impact of those changes, year-over-year car purchases were up, leading to higher core and scrap volumes.

In addition, core and scrap revenues per car outpaced the cost of scrap vehicles, which along with higher full service part sales also contributed to higher operating income.

During the quarter, we opened a new full service receiving facility in New Jersey, which allows us to cross-utilize inventories in New England with those in North Carolina and Virginia and to improve our fill rates. It also gives us an opportunity to penetrate the lucrative New York/New Jersey markets. While this new operation had limited impact in the first quarter, we believe it will be a contributor in the quarters ahead.

I’d now like to turn the call over to Richard for more details on the quarter. Richard.

Richard D. Peach

Thank you, John. I thought I’d start out with more detail on freight issues. Looking at the metals recycling business, the total cost of freight to deliver the product to our customers in the first quarter was $67 million. In the fourth quarter of last year, the cost was roughly the same, $68 million, despite the fact that ferrous processed volume sold were about 25% higher in that quarter.

If you look at it on a cost-per-unit basis, that equates to about $14 per ton sequential increase in freight costs across all ferrous tons sold during the first quarter. Of course, sales to our own steel mill and other domestic customers are largely unaffected by the ocean-going freight market so the impact on the 640,000 tons of processed export sales is closer to $25 per ton.

As John mentioned earlier, in addition to the cost issues surrounding freight, availability of ships caused us to delay five ships into the second quarter. So not only were the freight costs per ton higher, we were required to delay recognition of income from about 175,000 tons.

Looking at our balance sheet, our net debt was up $93 million from the end of the last fiscal year, with almost two-thirds of the increase being related to inventory balances. Inventory levels should reduce during the second quarter as this inventory is shipped and as the steel manufacturing business makes sales out of inventories during the planned shutdown for maintenance.

During the quarter, we repurchased 300,000 shares of our stock for $18 million. Since we restarted our buy-back a year ago, we have repurchased 2.8 million shares, or about 9% of the total shares outstanding. We now have about 1.9 million shares remaining under the current authorization from our board.

Capital expenditures in the quarter were $16 million and we spent an additional $25 million on acquisitions, so in total during the quarter, we reinvested nearly $60 million in value-enhancing opportunities to grow the business, or in returning money to our shareholders.

Depreciation during the quarter was $12 million, which should be a good run-rate for the remainder of the year, and the tax rate was a little less than 36%.

Finally, SG&A costs were $45 million, which were up $2 million year over year, primarily due to share-based compensation expense and headcount from acquisitions made over the last 12 months. Sequentially, SG&A costs were down $7 million, which is more of a reflection of the timing of a number of expenses which hit during the fourth quarter.

Let me turn the call back to John.

John D. Carter

Thanks, Richard. Let me turn to our outlook for the second fiscal quarter; in the metals recycling business, we are seeing positive signs for the overall market demand for scrap. We are also seeing some relief in sight from the shipping issues which had such a negative impact in the first quarter.

Based on the sales made to date, gross prices for shipments committed for January and February have risen enough to offset the freight price increases that took place in the first quarter. At the same time, pressures on the availability of ships are easing, at least in the near term. Even though shipments made in December were for the most part contracted before sales prices rose significantly, the average net prices for the entire quarter are expected to increase over the prices in the first quarter.

As indicated by the upward trend in pricing, demand for ferrous scrap remains strong. The five export cargos which were delayed from the first quarter have already been shipped and second quarter ferrous volumes in our processing operations are expected to increase by at least 150,000 tons from the recently completed first quarter and they will exceed the volume shipped in the second quarter of last year. Non-ferrous volumes are also expected to increase, both quarter over quarter and year over year.

Turning to the steel manufacturing business, West Coast non-residential construction demand remains soft, which is consistent with what is being reported elsewhere in the country. Offsetting the soft demand, customer inventories are very low and imports are down so the supply/demand equation is fairly good.

West Coast prices currently appear to be higher than the rest of the country and in California, Nevada, and Arizona, we are seeing competition for domestic producers who are shipping product from other regions in the country. Until activity picks up enough in these regions to reduce the incentive to ship to the west, this competition is expected to put a damper on price increases which we’d otherwise expect due to lower import volumes.

As a result of all these factors, second quarter prices are expected to remain at about the same level as achieved in the recently completed first quarter, although on a year-over-year basis they will be considerably higher.

Scrap and other raw material costs are expected to increase and we have not yet seen the ability to offset these costs, even with the higher prices. Due to the same factors that are impacting pricing, we are expecting second quarter volumes for finished products to be down slightly from the first quarter as well as the second quarter.

We are planning a two- to three-week shutdown for both the melt shop and rolling mills to perform routine maintenance. While the costs of the shutdown is also expected to impact margins, we were able to build inventory in the first quarter so it won’t be a factor in the sales volumes.

In the auto parts business, on a year-over-year basis we expect to see revenue improvements from all sources due to higher volumes and higher prices for recycled metals. On a quarter-over-quarter basis, typical seasonal declines in the self service business will likely more than offset normal improvements in the full service business, resulting in -- if the full service business improvements result from the impact of bad driving weather on the vehicle repair industry.

Let me conclude by recapping; we just completed a solid quarter in all of our businesses, despite facing some fairly challenging market conditions. The positive long-term fundamentals underlying our businesses remain in place and we are seeing signs that these issues, at least with regard to the metals recycling business, may be behind us. We continue to be optimistic about the long-term outlook for our company.

Operator, let’s go ahead and open up the call for questions at this time.

Question-and-Answer Session

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Our first question will come from the line of John Rogers of D.A. Davidson. Please proceed.

John Rogers - D.A. Davidson & Co.

Good morning. I was curious -- first of all, on the GreenLeaf, the operation you opened in New Jersey, is that your first new store that you’ve opened?

John D. Carter

No, it’s actually a transfer point where we are able to take lower cost parts from our operations in the south and fill our inventory levels, both in New England and our other operations on the East Coast. We’re given some price advantage there and then we also are able to sell into those markets around New York, New Jersey.

John Rogers - D.A. Davidson & Co.

Okay, but is it included in the 18 --

John D. Carter

Yes, it is.

John Rogers - D.A. Davidson & Co.

Okay. All right, just so I’m clear on that. And then secondly I guess in terms of the scrap business and particularly the export business looking out later this year, are you seeing -- I mean, I assume you are now selling product out into -- close to March. Pricing is still -- I mean, you are seeing, I’ve heard some record levels for some prices being quoted recently, some of that export market. Is that what you are seeing as well and is it both Asia and Europe?

John D. Carter

Well, as you know, we don’t give specific information on pricing but we are very positive about our pricing in the second quarter and we are seeing strong demand, both in Asia and the Middle East and other areas that we sell into.

There are a number of interesting things happening on the demand side, including the fact that some recent publications in Japan have indicated that there are predictions there about scrap being used for the basic oxygen furnace. It’s noted a lower emission commitments that they’ve made under their greenhouse gas emissions requirements in Japan.

And of course, there’s a lot of new construction of EAF mills in Korea, so we see a lot of not only good pricing but upward demand on supply.

John Rogers - D.A. Davidson & Co.

Okay, and I guess just finally, John, you talked about being active in terms of looking at M&A opportunities. You still expect more of it in the scrap side of the business, you’re seeing more opportunities there or does that include the other businesses as well?

John D. Carter

Well, we’ve been very active in both the metals recycling business and the auto parts business, so we still think in the metals recycling business, John, there are some very good opportunities and we are remaining very active in that area.

John Rogers - D.A. Davidson & Co.

Okay. All right. Thank you very much.

Operator

Our next question will come from the line of Sal Tharani of Goldman Sachs. Please proceed.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

John, on scrap, you mentioned that you will see higher margins. Is this higher margin on higher volume, is that correct to assume?

John D. Carter

Well, it’s both, Sal. I mean, as we indicated, there are five shipments out of the first quarter that we’ll make up in the second quarter and we’ve seen not only strong pricing trends in the second quarter but some easing off on the freight costs.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

And in the first quarter, I mean, so in the fourth quarter you mentioned some margin squeeze because of the buying pressure you had and compete -- competitors, especially container wise, guys who were sending in container shipments. Is that still there or you have seen some relief on that?

John D. Carter

Well, I think the pressure is -- first of all, it’s not really just the container people. It’s the mills and other people who are in the scrap market buying but we are very comfortable with where those buy prices are, about the same in the second quarter as the first quarter. As thing develop, of course, if the domestic market ticks up, then we’ll see more pressure on the buy prices there.

But as I said earlier, we see margin expansion in the second quarter.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

At the beginning of the month generally, domestic mills start to buy for the rest of the month -- in your southern operation, have you seen any price increases already for this month?

John D. Carter

Yes, we have.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

Are you able to quantify that?

John D. Carter

No, we can’t.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

There was news that bundled auction prices have gone up significantly for January/February delivery. I don’t know if you guys have heard anything.

John D. Carter

Well, we’re not -- you know, the bundle part of the business is not a big part of our business and the public prices for us are always interesting but not necessarily reflective of where we are. But as I said earlier, we see good upward pressure on the pricing in the second quarter.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

And another thing on scrap, you mentioned then and you actually noted in your press release that the volume out of trading business was very low. That has to do with the availability of scrap from Russia. Is that something you think will continue on over the next couple of quarters?

John D. Carter

Well, we’re watching that with interest. As you know, our trading business is primarily, for our purposes, a reflection of our ability to look at the overall world market and understand where trends are. It’s a low margin business because we don’t add any processing value to the scrap products that we trade. But it has been interesting in the growth of the Russian economy that a great deal more of their generated scrap has been consumed internally. If you see that economy continue to grow and if you see other countries, both the former Soviet Union countries and China continue to buy from Russian sources, my view is that the scrap volumes coming out of the Baltic probably are going to be less than historically, at least recent history in terms of volume.

On the other hand, we don’t expect our volumes to be much different than what we said they were for the year.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

And on the freight costs, which Richard mentioned $25 a ton if you just assume the export volume, is that coming down in this quarter? Have you seen some relief or is this just the selling price has gone up to compensate for the increase in the freight costs?

John D. Carter

Well, the selling price has gone up but we’ve seen some relief in the price on the freight costs as well.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

And is this something continuing? I mean, if you are ordering more and more orders, you are seeing it continuously coming down?

John D. Carter

Well, it’s difficult for us to predict what the future is going to be in the freight market, as obviously the spikes in the first quarter indicated some people, most of us were caught a little bit by surprise by the spike in the price.

But as you know, there’s a considerable amount of tonnage that are on the ways in the freight market area where we are active and other commodity shippers are active, so we expect the market to be rational about freight costs going forward.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

Okay, and on the mill side, is this something new you are seeing where the mills from the East Coast or Midwest are competing in the West Coast market, or is this something which has happened in the past also?

John D. Carter

Well, I can’t really say much about how far back to go on that but I can say at least in the recent past where the competition on the West Coast has been primarily from imports, the imports are down considerably and one could say that’s probably because of the dollar. On the other hand, that means that the East Coast mills, if they see demand diminishing in their areas, that they want to sell their product and so if they can sell into the West Coast markets profitably, they’ll do so.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

The mills in the Midwest and East Coast have implemented a $25 increase in rebar and [inaudible] prices for January. Are you saying that your price will be flat -- it means that -- are they selling it at below Midwest pricing at least in the West Coast do you think?

John D. Carter

It’s difficult to say because as you know, each of these prices is -- prices are dependent on the customer base and much of what is being sold on the West Coast is sold in the L.A. Basin, so what their prices and discounts and customer desires are is pretty tough for us to measure.

If there is improvement in the pricing on the East Coast and the Midwest, then we expect them to not want to incur the freight cost and sell their product where they can make more money.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

And the demand weakness, is that something that’s seasonal or do you think it is a reflection of the economy in California?

John D. Carter

Well, I think that the demand is reflective of what has been the commentary on the economy overall but I also think that as you know, there are a number of positive things longer term in the West Coast infrastructure, construction, California highway program and other things that will be upward pressure on the demand on the West Coast. And historically, West Coast prices for steel have been a bit higher.

Sal Tharani - Goldman Sachs

Thank you very much, guys.

Operator

(Operator Instructions) Our next question will come from the line of Eric Prouty of Canaccord Adams. Please proceed.

Eric Prouty - Canaccord Adams

Thanks a lot. Guys, maybe just a little commentary around your expected shipment volumes in the upcoming quarter in ferrous. If one looks at the product which came out of this quarter just ended into the next quarter, if we back that out it looks like volumes are kind of flat to down a little bit. Any commentary around that?

John D. Carter

If you look at our projections for shipments in the second quarter, as we said we expect them to be up 150,000 to 200,000 tons and there is some seasonal effect on normal winter flows because of the weather into the facilities, so there is the -- you know, this time of year and if you look at the second quarter last year, you’ll see that the seasonal flows are reflected in volumes.

Eric Prouty - Canaccord Adams

Sure, but you know again, backing out the 190 or so that slide out of this quarter, it would be down a little bit year over year. Is that just a timing issue or is there anything impacting that?

John D. Carter

No, no, it’s just a timing issue.

Eric Prouty - Canaccord Adams

Okay, and then on the supply side, some commentary during previous quarters about a shortage -- well, not a shortage but tighter markets in the U.S. for scrap, et cetera, people ramping up shredder capacity and looking for material. Any sign of that abating or is it still a tight market out there?

John D. Carter

Well, as you know, our markets and our locations geographically are a little different than other geographic markets might be. For example, in the L.A. Basin where we don’t operate, it appears that that competition is still very tight.

I think it will continue to be a competitive market for raw materials for us but on the other hand, that’s one of the reasons that we’ve been very active in tuck-in acquisitions and those things that allow us to feel more confident about our supply.

Eric Prouty - Canaccord Adams

And then a final question; you had some interesting commentary about the use of scrap in Japan. Are you seeing that in any other markets, in particular China, which is also interested in a near term cut in emissions? Is that possible in that market and are there are there any discussions around that that you’ve heard?

John D. Carter

I haven’t seen anything on that front. As you know, the Chinese had primarily moved forward with the basic oxygen furnace technology because they felt that the magnitude of their growth needed the larger capacity offered by that technology. And these are really things from the Japanese Steel Association and from other commentators that are focused on Japan, which is a country that’s made a commitment to lowering their greenhouse gas emissions by some 8%, and the mills have actually gone up over the last year so that the mills, in order to come within that have a substantially tighter target. That’s probably why they are doing it.

Eric Prouty - Canaccord Adams

Okay, great. Interesting commentary. Thank you.

Operator

Our next question will come from the line of Phillip Gibbs of Keybanc Capital Markets. Please proceed.

Phillip Gibbs - Keybanc Capital Markets

I was just wondering if you could provide any added outlook commentary on -- in addition to scrap, alloy flox electrodes, these costs given the various dynamics -- I mean, given that nickel has been trending lower recently and we’re still seeing a tight global electrode market. I just wanted to hear what you had to say about --

John D. Carter

Probably can’t add much to what I said. Many of those are purchases that are only 30 days out, so forward trends are pretty tough for us to get a broader look at and we only have the one mill.

Phillip Gibbs - Keybanc Capital Markets

What are you seeing as far as electricity costs going into ’08? Can you give any color where that’s been trending in recent months?

John D. Carter

Again, that’s actually pretty unique to us because our electricity costs are based on our supplier and we -- our supply situation is pretty stable.

Phillip Gibbs - Keybanc Capital Markets

Okay, great. I appreciate it. Thank you.

Operator

This concludes the question-and-answer portion of today’s conference. I will turn the call back to management for any closing remarks.

John D. Carter

Thank you for joining us today and we appreciate the questions and look forward to talking to you next time. Thanks very much.

Operator

Thank you for your participation. You may now disconnect. Have a great day.

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Source: Schnitzer Steel F1Q08 (Qtr End 11/30/07) Earnings Call Transcript
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