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The blue chip stocks began their earnings parade on Monday, with aluminum manufacturer Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) leading the pack.
Fortunately for investors tiring of predictions of a double-dip recession and China beginning to flag economically, the company posted stronger results than were expected. In fact, given Alcoa's role as a company whose results are looked to as economic predictors -- along with the disparate likes of Caterpillar and FedEx -- I'm more eager than before to have the other bellwethers report.
Alcoa chalked up net income of $136 million, or $0.13, per share. Those numbers represented a clear improvement from a loss of $454 million, or $0.47 a share, for the comparable quarter a year ago. Revenues for the period improved 22% to $5.19 billion. Those metrics also topped analysts' expectations, which included a consensus forecast of $0.11 a share in income.
The company's segment results were generally solid as well, with only Primary Metals sliding somewhat. And since that was partially tied to litigation costs or outages at three smelters, I'm anticipating that it too will become positive in the current quarter.
The big improvement in Alcoa's quarterly results occurred despite a 1% dip in the average realized price for aluminum. As such, its totals were driven by demand improvements in many of its end markets. For instance, packaging revenues increased by 17%, while those from commercial transportation were up 10%.
According to Klaus Kleinfeld, Alcoa's CEO, "Based on this improved end-market demand, we are raising our projection for aluminum consumption from 10% to 12% this year." He specifically observed that "aggressive legislation" requires automobile manufacturers to improve average fuel efficiency from 25.5 miles per gallon today to 35.5 by 2016, a change he called "a big task." He sees increased aluminum usage in cars as one of the few levers auto companies like Ford (NYSE: F ) and Toyota (NYSE: TM ) can pull to meet this aggressive new standard.
But growth in automotive demand for aluminum won't be solely a U.S. phenomenon. Klienfeld sees China setting the pace, highlighting its 10-15% growth rate and noting "General Motors just announced that China sales surpassed the U.S., [a] first in their 102 year history of GM."
So, Alcoa has led off with a positive surprise. And while such other U.S. bellweather metals companies as U.S. Steel (NYSE: X ) and Freeport-McMoRan (NYSE: FCX ) will have Fools tuning in attentively with their reports on the 27th and 21st respectively, the big aluminum company has provided us with a strong start.