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This is a good time to be in the steel business, even if that is not obvious from first-quarter earnings - which are down, in some cases sharply, from last year.

But those results are history, the product of soft prices late last year as well as problems resulting from strikes, weather and production problems at plants that have been running practically flat out since 1992.Since the beginning of this year, steel orders have been running so high that most mills are already sold out through the second quarter, analysts report.

Last year, companies in the United States consumed 111 million tons of steel, up from 89 million tons in 1991.

Heavy orders mean higher prices, and steel companies have announced a series of price increases that are due to go into effect later this year, fattening profit margins. The price increases were not in effect in the early part of the year because most spot-market prices had been determined late in 1995 and guaranteed for the first quarter.

One company that is likely to benefit from increased orders is Nucor Corp., of Charlotte, N.C., which sells exclusively on the spot market.

About 50 percent of steel is sold on yearly contracts, which provide price stability for both consumer and producer, but limit the upside for some producers in strong markets.

Nucor, which is now the fourth-largest steel company in the country and will probably be the second in a few years, has announced several price increases in 1996 and is generally expected to impose another when it starts taking orders early in May for delivery in the third quarter.

(It should be noted that Nucor is usually the quickest to cut prices when demand softens, so it can keep its plants running efficiently.)

The price of Nucor shares has dropped on the New York Stock Exchange from almost $64 a share in mid-March to $57 at Thursday's close, probably as a result of first-quarter earnings, which came in at 60 cents a share. That was below both last year's earnings of 77 cents a share and the consensus forecast of 66 cents.

"I like Nucor as a company and as a stock," said Michelle Apple-baum of Salomon Brothers. She said the company would benefit in the short term from higher spot-market prices and longer term from investments in new steelmaking capacity and in a plant to produce a substitute for increasingly expensive scrap steel.

Applebaum is forecasting that, despite the disappointing first quarter, Nucor's earnings will shoot up to $4.29 a share this year from $3.14 in 1995 and then rise to $4.40 in 1997.

She also likes the shares of Worthington Industries, a steel processor based in Columbus, Ohio.

"The company buys commodity steel and adds value, so it is neutral to fluctuations in prices," Apple-baum said. "If there is a big demand for steel next year, its sales could increase 30 percent, but the stock sells at a 20 percent discount to the market."