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Alcoa Gets Earnings Season Off to the Right Start

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Alcoa (AA) has become the traditional lead-off hitter to earnings season, and the company got things off to a strong start, delivering an unexpected profit of 2 cents a share on revenue of $5.8 billion.

Excluding special items, Alcoa earned 11 cents a share.

The numbers were a sort of razzie for the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which recently dropped Alcoa (along with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) and Bank of America (BAC)) in favor of sexier offerings Nike (NKE), Visa (V) and Goldman Sachs (GS).

But the news was significant in another way, demonstrating that old-line, basic-material companies can find ways to succeed by finding new markets. In Alcoa's case, this can be summed up in one word: transportation. Aluminum is lighter than steel, and Alcoa has increased its penetration in both car and plane manufacturing.

In its conference call, Alcoa executives took the time to attack the London Mercantile Exchange, or LME, for changes to its warehousing policy it said distorted the market.

This is seen as an opportunity by the CME Group (CME), which plans to offer an aluminum futures contract soon. Alcoa wants the LME to start reporting how traders are using its warehouses, as is required in the U.S.

The price manipulation made possible by LME rules actually made it into popular culture this last quarter when John Oliver of The Daily Show ran a segment on Goldman Sachs's (GS) use of it.

Alcoa's place at the intersection of international price-fixing, high-tech manufacturing and popular culture may seem trivial, but it's not. Like a classic lead-off hitter, the results for this basic materials company tend to set the table for the rest of earnings season.

Basic-material stocks have actually done a good job of mirroring the broader S&P 500 index this year. They are very similar. They're down about 1.28% while the market as a whole is up only less than 1%, and the pattern of movements in both has seldom diverged. They may not seem sexy, but they're called basic for a reason.

Because Alcoa was dropped from the Dow, it may not be seen as a lead-off hitter by all traders, who will be waiting instead for JPMorgan Chase (JPM) to report on Friday.

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