During Alcoa's (NYSE: AA ) first-quarter conference call, it highlighted industrywide aluminum cutbacks leading to a shortfall of the strong but lightweight metal in 2014. That comes at the same time that some exciting developments are taking place on the demand side. This is good news for Alcoa's long-term future.
During the first-quarter conference call, Alcoa CFO Bill Oplinger noted that, "On the aluminum side, we tightened our forecast by nearly 430,000 metric tons driven by curtailments in the rest of the world including our own announced curtailments. The result is a deficit of roughly 730,000 metric tons."
Industry watchers at HSBC back up Aloca's deficit call.
You shut production when oversupply is depressing prices. However, it's a cleansing process that pushes out high-priced production, brings supply and demand into balance, and, ultimately, leads to higher prices. And, interestingly, right now is an exciting time in the aluminum market.
The big news truck
One of the biggest industry events was the launch of the new Ford (NYSE: F ) F-150. According to Alcoa, the "military-grade aluminum alloy in the body and the back" make the truck about 700 pounds lighter than its predecessors. When you're talking about vehicles that weigh between 2 tons and 2.5 tons, that may not sound like a big deal. But when it comes to gas mileage, it is.
The weight reduction pushes gas mileage to as high as 30 miles per gallon and helps the truck boast improved performance in such key areas as acceleration and stopping. This is a massive industry shift since heavy-duty trucks have historically been gas guzzlers. But that's likely just the start. Ford CEO Alan Mulally told Bloomberg in January that, "Over time, you'll see more and more aluminum across our product line." Government fuel-efficiency mandates almost guarantee that.
This is, in fact, a bold move for Ford because the F-150 is one of its best selling vehicles. If Ford's F-150 doesn't live up to promises or expectations, Ford's results and image will suffer. While the new truck isn't likely to be the next Pinto, keep a close eye on customer reviews of the new F-150 -- the launch will be a big test of aluminum's image, too.
Looking beyond the truck
So clearly Alcoa is excited about the Ford F-150 tipping the auto industry into a new phase where aluminum demand increases. During the first-quarter conference call, Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld noted the potential: "We believe that the aluminum content in cars is going to quadruple." Putting some numbers on that, Kleinfeld added,
Last year we stood at $229 million [in revenue] for auto sheet. For this year, we are expecting $330 million, for next year, $580 million. But you really get the picture when the volume ramps up to $1.3 billion in 2018.
The thing is, it isn't just car bodies that are changing. For example, Alcoa introduced a new heavy-duty wheel, called Ultra ONE. It's 17% stronger, but the big news is, again, weight: "[It's] 47 times lighter than steel, and it's even 18% lighter than an average aluminum wheel." It can help truckers reduce weight by as much as 1,400 pounds. That translates to better gas mileage or more hauling capacity. Either one is a win.
On the auto front, Alcoa is expecting low-single digit growth in mature markets and high-single digit growth in Asia. With regard to trucks, it's looking at high-single digit growth, too. Aerospace, another industry where weight is paramount, is also expected to be up in the high-single digits. The shift toward lightweight but strong metals is the key, and that's Alcoa's strong suit.
The future is light
Alcoa is at the forefront of the "light" future where major industry players like Ford are already starting to tread. Although the shares are up notably over the past year or so, they remain far below their pre-recession highs. It's still a good time to consider this aluminum giant as reducing weight becomes increasingly important.
Even lighter cars need fuel, and we're making more of it at home than ever....
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