By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steelmaker, on Thursday forecast a slight expansion of global steel demand in 2019 after a healthy market drove its earnings to their highest level in a decade last year.
The company said it expected world steel demand to grow by between 0.5 and 1 percent this year after an increase of 2.8 percent in 2018.
Demand, it said, would improve in all regions except China, the world's biggest producer and consumer of steel, where ArcelorMittal has a minimal presence.
The most rapidly expanding market would again be Brazil, with a 3.5-4.5 percent growth this year from 7.3 percent in 2018. Steel demand in ArcelorMittal's main markets, Europe and the United States, would grow by respectively 0.5-1.0 percent and 0.5-1.5 percent, lower than last year.
"Although the issue of global overcapacity persists and there are well publicised macro-economic risks, we expect further, moderate global steel demand growth this year," Chief Executive Lakshmi Mittal said in a statement.
"Having considerably strengthened the company in recent years, we are in a strong position to generate healthy levels of free cash and prosper through the cycle."
The company said it expected its steel shipments would increase, boosted by operational improvements. Capital expenditure would increase to $4.3 billion from $3.3 billion in 2018.
ArcelorMittal is investing in projects in Mexico and Brazil. It has also bought Italy's Ilva, Europe's largest capacity steel plant, and is close to completing the acquisition of Essar Steel, a deal that would see it entering the high-growth Indian market.
The company, which skipped shareholder payouts in 2015 and 2016, doubled its proposed dividend to $0.20 per share, more than the average $0.12 forecast in a Reuters poll.
Net debt at the end of 2018 was at $10.2 billion, slightly down from the $10.5 billion at the end of the third quarter. ArcelorMittal is seeking to reduce it to below $6 billion, with a return to an investment grade rating a priority.
The company reported fourth-quarter core profit (EBITDA) of $1.95 billion, a 9 percent decline from a year earlier. That was broadly in line with the company-compiled consensus of $1.96 billion from a group of about 20 brokers.
For the full year the figure was $10.27 billion.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Subhranshu Sahu and Gopakumar Warrier)