(Updated to reflect Monday stock prices.)
NEW YORK (
) -- Aluminum giant
will release its fourth-quarter results after the closing bell Monday, but investors and analysts will likely be paying attention to what the company has to say about the unusual status of the aluminum market more than almost anything else in its quarterly report.
The metal, of course, is a tradeable commodity -- and for at least the last year, a slew of huge contango trades made by big-money market participants has removed an enormous quantity of aluminum from the market.
Known as financing deals, these trades are essentially arbitrage plays, and they make it necessary to buy and store physical aluminum. Vast stores of metal are now sitting in warehouses run by the London Metals Exchange in places like Rotterdam and Liverpool.
When eventually the contango ends and the metal hits the market, prices of course will fall -- and so will Alcoa shares, which tightly track the price of the metal.
Other factors have recently helped lift aluminum prices on the LME -- and thus Alcoa stock. Over the last six months or so, speculators have bought up long positions in aluminum, a form of the same carry trade that has become so popular among finance pros here in the era of the zero interest rate. Rising prices, meanwhile, have squeezed short traders, forcing them to cover their positions and adding to the aluminum-price spike.
The question, then, has become: When will all these bets unwind? The obvious answer: whenever the
raises rates, easing back on the spigot of free-flowing money, strengthening the dollar and making commodities less appealing to investors.
Until the aluminum market goes back to normal, Alcoa stock will remain a risky wager, analysts say. Partly for this reason,
analyst Brian Yu cut his rating on Alcoa Wednesday to hold/high risk from buy/high risk. In a research note, he also cited the stock's high price relative to the company's projected 2010 earnings.
Yu is bearish relative to his peers when it comes to Alcoa's fourth quarter. He believes the company will miss the consensus Wall Street earnings estimate of 6 cents a share, according to Thompson Reuters. Yu is looking for just 3 cents a share; he expects the weaker dollar to drag on earnings more than most expect.
Still, the fourth quarter will likely mark Alcoa's second period in a row with black ink on the bottom line after a string of quarterly losses. (A year ago, the company posted a $1.2 billion loss, mostly as a result of restructuring costs and a cratering aluminum market.) To deal with the recession, Alcoa has undergone massive cost cuts by laying off some 13,000 workers and idling smelters.
As such, investors will be looking closely at how those cost cuts have affected the company's bottom line. They'll also pay attention to the company's big aerospace and automobile segments for signs of life in those downtrodden end markets. Alcoa may discuss how much business it expects to do with
as it fills out orders for the 787 Dreamliner.
Alcoa shares were trading as high as $17.60, up 3.4%, early in Monday's session, notching another a new 52-week high before easing back.
Among other aluminum names,
shares were losing ground Monday, falling 1.3% to 43.37.
was gaining 1.6% to $18.11. while American depositary receipts of the
Aluminum Corp. of China
were advancing 5% to $34.01.
-- Written by Scott Eden in New York
Follow TheStreet.com on
and become a fan on
Scott Eden has covered business -- both large and small -- for more than a decade. Prior to joining TheStreet.com, he worked as a features reporter for Dealmaker and Trader Monthly magazines. Before that, he wrote for the Chicago Reader, that city's weekly paper. Early in his career, he was a staff reporter at the Dow Jones News Service. His reporting has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and the Believer magazine, among other publications. He's also the author of Touchdown Jesus (Simon & Schuster, 2005), a nonfiction book about Notre Dame football fans and the business and politics of big-time college sports. He has degrees from Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis.