By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - World No. 1 steelmaker ArcelorMittal sees demand from China and the auto industry ensuring no repeat of last year's sharp second half slowdown and a milder seasonal profit dip in the third quarter.
The company, which makes 6 to 7 percent of the world's steel and whose production is more than double that of its nearest rival, said it had raised its forecast for global steel consumption this year due to continued strong demand from China.
Apparent steel consumption China, not a main market for ArcelorMittal but influential in driving prices and demand, should increase by more than 8.5 percent this year, meaning global sector expansion would be 7 to 7.5 percent.
Higher steel prices and blast furnaces running at some 80 percent of capacity helped drive core profit (EBITDA) to $3.41 billion in the second quarter, more than the market had expected and the highest level since before the 2008-2009 crisis.
It would then fall back to between $2.4 billion and $2.8 billion in the third quarter, the company said.
According to a Reuters poll, the market expected core profit of $3.25 billion in the second quarter and $2.65 billion in the third.
"As expected the company has delivered a strong performance in the second quarter of 2011 underpinned by higher steel selling prices," Chief Executive Lakshmi Mittal said in a statement.
"Although the third quarter will experience some seasonal impact, we do not expect this to be as pronounced as last year, and overall the group's performance in the second half of 2011 should compare favorably with the second half of 2010."
The company said steel shipments and earnings per tonne in the second half of the year would be higher than in the second half of 2010, when a sharp slowdown drove ArcelorMittal into a final quarter loss.
Relatively low levels of inventories could help avoid a repeat of last year's poor second half, with reasonable prospects of some fourth-quarter pick-up.
PRESSURE ON MARGINS
Demand typically dips in the third quarter, the northern hemisphere summer, but sector earnings also face pressure from record production in China and demand capped by tighter monetary policy there and debt problems in Europe and the United States.
South Korea 's POSCO, the world's No. 3 steelmaker, warned last week of weakening demand growth and persistently high costs in the second half.
European hot rolled steel cord prices rose 30 percent in the first quarter, while spot prices for Chinese iron ore imports increased by just 3 percent, according to Metal Bulletin.
However, during the April-June period, prices for the same products fell 12 percent and 3 percent respectively.
For ArcelorMittal, spot prices usually affect earnings with a three to four-month time lag, meaning tighter margins in the second quarter will be reflected in third-quarter figures.
Steelmakers have profited from a booming auto sector, but there is little sign of recovery among the other main customers in construction, a market where ArcelorMittal is more exposed than rivals.
ArcelorMittal should benefit from its increasing exposure to iron ore and coal mining, for which it is providing separate earnings figures from this year, particularly after disruptions in Brazil and Canada in the first quarter.
The company said it should achieve volume growth of 10 percent for iron ore and 20 percent for coking coal, with higher prices and stable costs.
ArcelorMittal announced earlier this month it was bidding $5 billion, together with Peabody Energy, for Australia's Macarthur Coal and should give analysts more information on its plans for the asset.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Will Waterman)