By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - ArcelorMittal <ISPA.AS>, the world's largest steelmaker, set out a new $3 billion (1 billion pounds) savings plan to restore steel margins to levels unmatched since the crisis struck in 2008.
The new plan is the latest step in its aggressive response to steel sector problems that include a nine percent slide in demand in the European Union last year.
The Luxembourg-based company has already sold assets, launched a rights issue, cut its dividend and closed some production since Standard & Poor's cut its credit rating to junk status last August.
ArcelorMittal, more than double the size of its nearest rival, said on Friday it wanted to make savings of $3 billion (1 billion pounds) by the end of 2015 by improving the reliability, productivity and energy efficiency of its blast furnaces and mills and shifting to low-cost U.S. gas.
The new plan supplements $4.8 billion (3.1 billion pounds) of savings in sales and administrative expenses and other costs achieved by the end of September 2012 and the idling and closing of facilities in Europe set to yield $1 billion (661 million pounds) per year.
The aim is to increase core profit per tonne of steel produced to $150 (99.24 pounds). It dropped to $85 (56.24 pounds) per tonne last year from $118 (78.07 pounds) in 2011, the peak level of the past four years. In 2008, the figure was $241 (159.44 pounds), driven by the commodity boom.
Chief Financial Officer Aditya Mittal said the improvement was realistic with a 15 percent market expansion and global shipments rising to around 95 million tonnes.
ArcelorMittal's steel shipments were above 100 million tonnes in 2007 and 2008, but have been below 90 million since.
The company has raised $4 billion (2 billion pounds) by selling shares and convertible bonds and assets including the $1.1 billion (727.7 million pounds) sale of a 15 percent stake in its Canadian mining business to POSCO <005490.KS> and China Steel Corp <2002.TW>.
The first $810 million (535 million pounds) part of the sale was concluded on Friday. The rest is set to be completed in the second quarter.
The $500 billion (330 billion pounds) a year steel industry registered only modest 2 percent growth last year as slowing Chinese growth compounded weak demand in austerity-hit Europe.
In a presentation to investors, the group said it saw global steel consumption between 3 and 3.5 percent higher this year than last, slightly above the 3 percent it forecast in February.
Steel demand in Europe would hit a low, falling by around 1 percent this year, the group said.
Over the next five years, it envisages 20 million tonnes of demand recovery in North America and the EU, representing 3 percent average annual growth in the latter from 2012.
ArcelorMittal reiterated its financial guidance that this year's core profit would be higher than in 2012 and repeated that it was on track to reduce net debt to $17 billion (11 billion pounds) by the middle of 2013, with a medium-term goal of $15 billion (9 billion pounds).
The steelmaker also said it was on course to have iron ore mining capacity of 84 million tonnes by 2015, with the expansion of operations in Canada and Liberia.
(Reporting By Philip Blenkinsop and Ben Deighton; Editing by Helen Massy-Beresford)