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Alcoa’s Solid Earnings To be Short Lived

rVY4sEWG_400x400The world’s leading aluminum producer Alcoa (NYSE:$AA) posted its results for the quarter ending December 2012. The company swung to a quarterly net profit of $242 million from a loss of $191 million a year ago. Total earnings, excluding one-off items, such as the gains from sale of theTapoco hydroelectric dam complex in Tennessee that caused an after tax gain of $161 million, Alcoa generated a profit of $64 million — a significant change from the loss of $34 million in the same quarter last year. The positive results have come on the back of a drop in oil prices in Q2, rise in aluminum prices, better performance in the aerospace sector and the business’s ongoing cost cutting drive that includes closure of inefficient smelters and a reduction of 23% — or 531,000 metric tons – of production capacity.

The stock markets always look forward to Alcoa’s earnings since the company, a bellwether of the manufacturing industry, leads the quarterly earnings season.  Strong result generally sets a positive attitude for the rest of the earnings to come.

It is now increasing its focus on the aerospace industry. The unit pulled off most impressive performance out of all the company’s divisions by netting a 12% increase in quarterly operating profit over last year to $137 million.

Since the beginning of 2013, Alcoa’s shares have been up 2.7%.  Overall however, it has been struggling due to volatile metal prices, the global economic slowdown in 2012 and oversupply in the industry.

The global aluminum prices have continued to rise slowly following the massive dip after the financial crisis of 2008. In the last calendar year, aluminum prices averaged at $2022.80 per metric ton which is significantly lower than 2010 or 2011 levels. This also represents a 23% drop from pre financial crisis average price of $2639.86 in 2007. In 2013, the average commodity price is expected to be $2125 per metric ton which would represent a 5% increase from 2012.  So much of that will come from a reflation of the world’s credit markets currently being engineered by the Federal Reserve and the other major central banks.  China is engaging in infrastructure stimulus, classic Keynesian counter-cyclical policy which will be supportive of base metals prices.  Japan’s aggressive monetary debasement should spur a domestic rebuilding that will put a bid under metal prices as well.

However, despite the rise in aluminum prices in the final quarter, Alcoa has still failed to increase its quarterly sales which registered a drop of 1.5% to $5.9 billion.

Like steel manufacturers such as ArcelorMittal (NYSE:$MT) or US Steel (NYSE:$X), the performance of Alcoa is also closely tied with the increase or decrease of fuel prices.

The link between Alcoa’s performance and oil prices is shown in the table below. I have used both US Brent Crude ETF (AMEX:$BNO) and the US Oil Fund ETF (AMEX:$USO), that represents WTI, to present my point. Since the industry is hedged out six months, therefore I have compared Alcoa’s current results – Q4 2012 – with average oil prices of Q2 2012 and so on. The correlation between the Operating Margins and oil prices is represented by the Pearson Statistic which measures direction correlation. Negative correlations mean a rising oil price has a depressing effect on operating margins.   


Q4 2011

Q1 2012

Q2 2012

Q3 2012

Q4 2012



















Amex BNO






Amex USO






Pearson Stat (BNO)






Pearson Stat (USO)






 Based on these calculations, it is pretty obvious that Alcoa’s gross profit margin is inversely proportional to the oil prices i.e. the higher the oil prices, the lower the margin is going to be in the coming quarters.  With Brent Crude and WTI moving higher in Q1 so far and a breakout from the current trading range looks likely with rising inflation and economic activity I expect Alcoa’s margins to erode starting with its next earnings report. 

Alcoa’s cost cutting initiative is going according to plan.  Shipments from the $10 billion Saudi Arabian facility, the business’s most cost efficient plant, began in Q4.  2013 is expected to be better on a rise in demand from China by 11% due to better performance from the local heavy vehicles construction segment. Moreover, the rise of the commercial building and construction industries in the US could increase aluminum’s demand by 7%. The demand in the aerospace segment, the strongest performing unit of the company, is also expected to increase by 10%.  Pushing out overhead will help offset rising energy prices but I still expect margins to be squeezed in 2013 as end users will be reluctant to bid prices higher.

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Peter Pham is an author, international fund manager, and a registered financial director by the Cayman Monetary Authority (CIMA). In 2013 he published his first book entitled, The Big Trade: Simple Strategies for Maximum Market Returns. He currently manages the portfolio of a global hedge fund and runs an asset management company, Phoenix Capital.  (read more)

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