BETHLEHEM, Pa. -- Bethlehem Steel Corp. yesterday reported significantly smaller losses in last year's fourth quarter and said that, thanks partly to temporary duties on steel imports, it hoped to record a profit this year.
Bethlehem, the nation's second-largest steel maker, also announced moves to help it reach its goal.
"If the economy continues to improve, fair trade in steel is achieved, and the value and demand for steel strengthen as expected, we believe that the actions we are taking to improve operating performance will return Bethlehem to profitability later this year," Curtis H. Barnette, chairman and chief executive, told reporters at a news conference.
The company, which owns the Sparrows Point steel mill in Baltimore County, lost $53.1 million, or 65 cents a share, in the three months that ended Dec. 31, compared with a loss of $638.1 million, or $8.47 a share, in the year-earlier period.
Sales in the fourth quarter dropped 3.4 percent, to $990.4 million, from $1 billion.
For the entire year, the company lost $449.3 million, or $5.78 a share. More than half the loss stemmed from a $250 million charge from new accounting rules related to taxes and retiree benefits. Sales for the year dropped by 7.2 percent, to $4 billion, from $4.3 billion in 1991.
Excluding the one-time expenses, Mr. Barnette attributed the quarterly and annual loss to "unfairly traded" steel imports, lower steel prices, high labor and coal-mining costs and an "unfavorable" mix of products the company sold.
But, he said, the economy is improving, and national steel shipments are expected to rise to 84 million tons, from 82 million last year.
But one of the biggest boosts to the company's fortunes came yesterday, when the Commerce Department said it found that companies in 19 countries were selling their steel sheet products in the United States below fair market value.
The value of the products covered was $2.6 billion. The department also recommended that duties ranging from 1.05 percent to 109 percent be permanently levied on the imports.
The preliminary tariffs take effect immediately. The Commerce Department will set final tariffs, which may be higher or lower, by late spring. But before the tariffs become permanent, domestic steel makers must also persuade the International Trade Commission, an independent U.S. agency, that steel imports are a key cause of the industry's woes.
The case that resulted in yesterday's decision -- and in a determination in November that foreign nations were subsidizing steel imports -- was filed in June by 12 steel companies, including Bethlehem.
Foreign officials were quick to protest. "This action is unwarranted and wholly disproportionate," said Sir Leon Brittan, the European Community's commissioner for external economic affairs. Steel from seven of the community's 12 member countries came under the rulings.
Hiroshi Saito, chairman of the Japan Iron and Steel Federation, called the decision "highly regrettable" and called for renewed efforts to reach a steel trade agreement.
Trying to take advantage of the improving trade and economic conditions, Mr. Barnette also announced:
* A tentative modernization plan for the Structural Product Division in Bethlehem, Pa. The updating is conditioned on reaching a labor agreement with the United Steelworkers of America at the plant.
* The reorganization of BethForge forging and CENTEC, both based in Bethlehem, into separate business units with separate labor agreements. BethForge forges and fabricates steel; CENTEC produces parts for the steel industry.
* The introduction of a granulated coal injection project at the company's Burns Harbor, Ind., plant. The granulated coal, which would be injected into blast furnaces, replaces other fuels and reduces steelmaking costs. The project would cost $100 million, but a government grant would cover part of the bill.