Alcoa's Where It Wants to Be

Alcoa's (NYSE: AA  ) earnings release, which kicked off the now-revving reporting season, was perhaps a little more complicated than first appearances would indicate.

On the one hand, the company reported net income of $303 million, or $0.37 a share, compared to $662 million, or $0.75 a share, for the first quarter of 2007. And even if you follow the company's elimination of restructuring charges and tax effects, the $0.44-per-share number fell far below $0.79 in the year-ago quarter.

The culprit in the slide -- as is likely to become a resounding theme for many of the other big companies that will report in the weeks ahead -- was a combination of higher raw materials costs, the spike in energy expenses, and the dollar's steady slide.

But beyond that triumvirate of weaknesses, aluminum prices have climbed by nearly 25% this year alone. In addition to a general escalation in commodities prices, the aluminum picture has been brightened by increasing demand in China. Where have you heard that story before?

And the real key to the company's attractiveness from an investment perspective may lie in CEO Alain Belda's assessment that, "... the global market remains tight and prices are near historic highs."

Alcoa management also spent a busy quarter honing the company's operations and extending its international scope. For instance, during the quarter, the packaging and consumer businesses were jettisoned. In addition, Alcoa teamed up with Aluminum Corp. of China (NYSE: ACH  ) for a 12% stake in Rio Tinto (NYSE: RTP  ) , the big London-based metals and mining company that is also being chased by Australia's BHP Billiton (NYSE: BHP  ) .

Also, following a lawsuit filed by Aluminum Bahrain B.S.C., Alcoa is undergoing a federal investigation into the possibility that it bribed officials in Bahrain in order to gain overpayments for alumina. For now, the market is clearly suspending judgment on that issue, which may ultimately wind up in the "Much Ado About Nothing" file.

So while Alcoa's quarterly results were less than stellar, the falloff was the result of what we economists call "exogenous variables." On that basis, I'll be eager to have such other big U.S.-based companies like Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) and DuPont (NYSE: DD  ) tell us about their quarters.

At the same time, I must admit to being intrigued by Alcoa's reshaping and its status as the world's third-largest aluminum producer. It's difficult to argue against metals and mining companies tasked with feeding the Chinese monster.

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