NEW YORK (Real Money) -- Alcoa (AA) did us no favors last night. It wasn't the headline number that got me down, because it is easy to match it with free cash flow and the cash on the balance sheet and know the company's in the best shape since 2006 from that standpoint.
It wasn't the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act settlement, although at $384 million it both is a headwind and something that I think should have produced some real culpability to previous management.
It wasn't even the inventory buildup in sheet used for aerospace and for beverage cans. The aerospace aluminum glut will be worked off by the 10,000 plane queue. The beverage problem, while a visible decline, is really seasonal in nature. But if I were in the carbonated soda business, a big part of the demand, I would be concerned as that secular decline continues.
It was China. The downtick in China is so crucial both because China produces more high-cost aluminum than it needs and because it signals that the world isn't in as good a shape as we would think.Across the board, the United States is better. While Alcoa did mention a slight buildup in inventory for autos, making cars lighter with aluminum and the predictions for demand for cars went up again on the call and that's from U.S. orders. Remember, Alcoa has had to open up new value-added aluminum plants to meet the demand for vehicles, including F-150 trucks. Orders from truck manufacturers for aluminum, after a pause in the third quarter, came roaring back. That's excellent for Cummins (CMI) and Eaton (ETN). A lot of that demand is from environmental regulations that make old engines both here and China obsolete.
Best of all, Klaus Kleinfeld predicted definitively that commercial construction, a huge hogger of aluminum, is coming back and, perhaps, will be very strong in U.S. He predicted it has troughed in Europe, but can come back. There's been a downtick in China and that, again, is bad news for world growth. Aluminum for gas turbines, once a very strong business, seems to have peaked. Everyone who is going to be converted here and in Europe seems to have done so. Now, it is possible that China might close some of the dirty aluminum smelting plants this year. But we have heard that before and we know that the downtick isn't huge. But it is enough to remain disturbing, particularly when combined with the Baltic Freight and the price of copper. As for Alcoa itself, here is a company that is "gee-ing it all she gawt," -- to use the Star Trek Scotty phrase -- taking out costs, cutting higher cost facilities, eliminating overhead, doing everything it can to save money, conserve cash and bringing on low-cost factories to replace higher ones. But in the end it is stuck with something that's a terrible curse: It makes raw aluminum. That remains a terrible business both because of chronic overcapacity and because China's slowing. That means another tough year for a company that's trying so hard to make money in its value-added business, but can barely offset the pull of its thwarted commodity side of the ledger. Action Alerts PLUS, which Cramer co-manages as a charitable trust, is long CMI and ETN. Editor's Note: This article was originally published at 7:32 a.m. EST on Real Money on Jan. 10.
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