That Tricky Alcoa
In 2011, Alcoa produced 3.78 million metric tons of aluminum, up 5.3% from the year-earlier period and 16.5 million metric tons of alumina, up 3.7% from 2010. (Alumina is used to make aluminum.) According to Alcoa, the size of world market is some 24.3 million metric tons, and Alcoa accounts for almost 15% of the world's production. The demand for aluminum has grown steadily. From 2001 to 2010, global consumption of aluminum has risen at a compounded annualized growth rate of 6%. The main drivers of demand are airplanes, aluminum trailers for transportation, containers/packaging and construction (think aluminum studs). Together, these drivers comprise about 62% of aluminum demand.
While demand has been steadily rising over the last decade, Alcoa has three major problems. First, the company's earnings are highly correlated with the global economy, and especially the American economy. If the economy sinks, Alcoa goes with it. Second, over the last decade China has become a net exporter of aluminum. By aggressively taking market share worldwide, China has displaced Alcoa in many markets.
The third problem is that there are a lot of moving parts to Alcoa's financials -- currency, volume, demand, price, product mix, energy, raw materials and labor costs. It's very difficult to get all those factors moving in the right direction. Last year, for example, productivity added $632 million to Alcoa's net income. However, higher energy costs of $182 million, higher raw materials costs of $373 million and general cost increases of $496 million all but wiped out the additional productivity the company managed to squeeze out. It's like that every quarter: One step forward, 10 steps back.
Last year, sales rose 19%, but this year the number is forecast to decline 2.2%. Lingering oversupply will make the first half of 2012 difficult. (In January, the company announced plans to shut down 12% of its high cost smelting capacity.)