The “Big Three” automakers are preparing to restart manufacturing next week, and Cleveland Cliffs, a major producer of iron ore pellets on the Iron Range, is hopeful demand for steel will return with it.
Cliffs idled its Northshore Mining iron mine and pellet plant in Babbitt and Silver Bay in April until at least August, laying off 470 of its 570 employees, as steel demand plummeted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. automakers Ford, General Motors and Fiat Chrysler shuttered plants to help curb the spread of the virus.
With its recent purchase of steelmaker AK Steel, Cliffs is now supplying steel to “virtually all” U.S. automakers, Cliffs President and CEO Lourenco Goncalves said. He said auto plants are reopening sooner than some expected.
“We are going to start seeing numbers normalizing early in June,” Goncalves said of the auto industry in a call announcing first-quarter results Monday morning.
Goncalves said he believes car ownership will increase as people are worried of coronavirus exposure from public transportation or from rideshare services like Uber and Lyft. He pointed to a CNBC interview of Mike Jackson, the CEO of AutoNation, the nation’s largest auto dealership chain. In the interview, Jackson urged automakers to restart production and said demand for vehicles is returning because of “pent-up demand, this need for personal space, available financing at very affordable prices, and it’s entirely appropriate that the factories reopen.”
“We are going to see renewed interest in car ownership … we are very optimistic,” Goncalves said.
But Tony Barrett, an economics professor at the College of St. Scholastica who follows Minnesota’s iron ore industry, said that outlook might be a bit too optimistic.
“The unemployment insurance and the extra $600 has really softened the blow, and consumers do have some money to spend,” Barrett said. “The question is: Will they?”
Last week, the U.S. insured unemployment rate reached 15.5% as a record 22.6 million people are now receiving unemployment benefits.
Barrett said he believes the economy will recover at a slower pace.
“Cleveland-Cliffs is saying they expect consumers are going to buy cars. I am more pessimistic,” Barrett said. “I think more of these furloughed workers are going to become permanent layoffs.”
Cliffs recorded a net loss of $49 million, or 18 cents per diluted share, in the first quarter of 2020. That includes $66 million, or 22 cents per diluted share, of costs related to its purchase of AK Steel.
“Revenues from March 13, 2020, to March 31, 2020, were unfavorably impacted by the reduction in sales as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cliffs said in a news release Monday morning. In the first quarter of last year, Cliffs recorded a net loss of $22 million, or 8 cents per diluted share.
Shares of Cliffs fell 13 cents to close at $4.69 Monday. The stock has traded as high as $11.61 and as low as $2.63 in the past 52 weeks.