And, they're off!

The first of the blue chips, Alcoa (NYSE:AA), reported Wednesday evening, and while its per-share results were better than expected, the company has a long way to go to recapture its prior sea legs.

The consensus expectation for the company had been a loss of about $0.38 a share, but earnings from continuing operations arrived at a loss of $0.32 per share. Further, backing out restructuring charges drops the number to a $0.26 loss, far better than the analysts who follow the company had anticipated. That net loss of $454 million would have compared to earnings of $546 million in the same quarter a year ago.

Looking at the company's segment results, Alumina fared the worst, losing $7 million compared to a prior quarter's gain of $35 million, but at least Primary Metals and Flat-Rolled Products both managed to cut their losses. And the fourth group, Engineered Products and Solutions, earned $88 million, down $7 million from the prior quarter.

On the conference call following the release, CEO Klaus Kleinfeld delivered what seemed to be a rather mixed outlook. On the one hand, he observed that weak demand for aluminum and falling metals prices might be abating somewhat. Indeed, aluminum prices are up 9% versus the prior quarter.

But at the same time, he attributed the lion's share of the improvement to import demand from China. In doing so, he noted that China's own aluminum industry will likely be strengthened by that nation's stimulus program, such that its demand for imports will likely slow going forward.

We'll learn more about the thin metal's current and future prospects when Century Aluminum (NASDAQ:CENX) and Kaiser Aluminum (NASDAQ:KALU) tell us about their quarters shortly. For its part, however, Alcoa's management is to be congratulated for positive results stemming from an array of cost-cutting efforts that have saved the company about $1 billion in procurement costs and in the vicinity of $270 million in overhead year to date.

On that basis, it'll also be informative to observe the cost-trimming effectiveness of other U.S.-based metals companies, including U.S. Steel (NYSE:X), Nucor (NYSE:NUE) and AK Steel (NYSE:AKS). All these companies have been laboring to slash overhead, and all will report during the next couple of weeks. In the meantime, Alcoa has set the bar pretty high.  

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Fool contributor David Lee Smith doesn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned above. He does, however, welcome your questions and comments. The Fool has an ironclad disclosure policy.