As I do every year, I watched a slew of companies in the basic materials sector plying their respective trades over the course of 2012. But now that aluminum maker Alcoa (NYSE: AA ) has kicked off the latest earnings parade with an extremely strong fourth-quarter showing (given the incredibly challenging market conditions it faced), I'd like to tip my hat to Alcoa's management team for one of the trailing year's more impressive displays of praiseworthy execution.
It may seem a bit odd to single Alcoa out for a year in which the stock languished in persistent weakness, particularly in light of Kaiser Aluminum's (Nasdaq: KALU ) truly exceptional performance. But right in the midst of a crushing collapse in aluminum prices, Alcoa delivered substantial improvements on key operating metrics to exit 2012 in far stronger position than where it began. Alcoa exceeded its own targets for improvements in productivity and overhead by 52% in 2012, yielding meaningful gains to the tune of $1.3 billion. A chunk of that progress was achieved by trimming roughly 12% of the company's smelting capacity by closing or curtailing several higher-cost facilities.
Alcoa delivered progress along most of the metrics that I have outlined as key areas to watch for existing or prospective investors. Thanks to a now-robust treasury of $1.9 billion, it ended 2012 with its lowest net debt (at $7 billion) since 2006. The company exceeded its target for days working capital with a record-low mark of 24 days. (For a full explanation of days working capital and what it reveals about Alcoa's capital allocation, access my premium research report on Alcoa by clicking here.]
With healthy fourth-quarter results -- featuring a huge improvement in after-tax operating income (ATOI) from the important primary aluminum segment -- I find this company solidly on track to deliver strong earnings growth in 2013. Even after adjusting for the $161 million gain recorded from the sale of the Tapoco Hydroelectric Project to Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners (UNKNOWN: BRPFF.DL ) -- Alcoa saw ATOI for primary metals surge sequentially by $169 million with only a modest corresponding increase in realized prices. Interestingly, as long as we're on the topic of standout excellence in corporate management, that hydroelectric project now joins the impressive empire of the proven value generators at Brookfield Asset Management (NYSE: BAM ) .
Global aluminum demand is expected to grow by 7% during 2013, which will go a long way toward absorbing much of the excess smelting capacity still plaguing prices and depressing the shares of producers like Alcoa. And because investors look to Alcoa's vanguard earnings reports for helpful insights into a range of aluminum-consuming industries, I hasten to point out Alcoa's projection for a solid 9% to 10% growth in the global aerospace market, 4% to 5% growth for building and construction, and 1% to 4% growth in the automotive market . These are encouraging numbers, and they reinforce my expectation that Alcoa's shares will likely climb back out of single-digit territory during 2013. Those same projections also bode well for Nucor (NYSE: NUE ) , my long-standing favorite among the steelmakers.
Let me be clear: Alcoa is a stock suited only for those who appreciate what it means to "get rich slowly." In response to my earnings preview article released Tuesday, Motley Fool reader maniladad summed up the long-term prospect rather elegantly. He stated: "Alcoa's price puts it way below its long-term historical CAGR (Compound Annual Growth Rate). If you have any faith in the reversion-to-mean concept and you think the company is basically solid, this might be a good time to make a long-term investment. I do and I did." I strongly encourage investors who are prepared to approach Alcoa with a similarly long-term mind-set to access my premium research report on the company by clicking here.