NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Oil prices' plunge to a four-year low highlights the risks for anyone investing in commodities and the companies that produce them. Commodities -- from iron to coal to soybean to silver, as well as oil -- have been out of favor for years now in what many are seeing as the early stages of an epic glut.
Yet, some commodities are still in demand, and even where they are not, companies have turned the misery to their advantage by lowering costs, making acquisitions, grabbing market share and becoming more efficient.
To be sure, it's hard to find good investments in a huge sector of the global economy when many companies in it are doing so badly because the price they fetch for their product keeps falling. While the S&P 500 has steadily risen by nearly 60% since the summer of 2011, the Goldman Sachs Connect S&P Enhanced Commodity Total (GSC) , an exchange-traded fund that tracks commodities, is down nearly 40%, and Goldman Sachs' S&P Natural Resources Index ETF (IGE) , which tracks the companies that produce them, was down nearly 10% during this time.
Similarly grim stories can be found in other commodities-type indexes. Worse, the compounding misery is lending credence to the controversial commodities super cycle theory. Its devotees posit there have been four such cycles since the late 19th century and we are in the first years of a period perhaps lasting two decades in which commodity prices will not go up.
In this environment it would appear to be a no-brainer not to play the volatile game of commodities trading or even the much less risky investments in natural resources mutual funds and ETFs.
The better alternative appears to be finding what few companies there are that have managed to push a camel through the eye of a needle. Alcoa (AA) , a strong Value Line pick, appears to be among the standouts not just for its market prominence but for the commodity it sells. Aluminum is one of the few commodities where prices have been headed higher in recent years.
The classic combination of low supply and increasing demand is one reason why. Alcoa is the happy beneficiary of one of its biggest customers -- the auto industry throughout the world -- increasing its use of aluminum, in the rights places, too. Toyota (TM) is replacing steel with aluminum in its popular Camry. Ford (F) is doing the same with the Ford-150, the best-selling pickup truck, as is Tata Motors (TTM) with its Jaguar Land Rover.
Alcoa's stock has been on a tear the past year but is still playing catch-up from 2011 and with a price to earnings multiple still below its median, the shares still appear to have a way to go.
Steel Dynamics (STLD) is making the most of a challenging position. Steel prices may be going down but so is the stuff it's made of, iron and coal. The upshot may be a net win for Steel Dynamics thanks to a recent acquisition that could be a primer in foreign affairs.
It acquired Severstal Columbus from Russia two months ago and, whatever its parentage, the steel company provides its new owner with a sure fit. Both Severstal and Steel Dynamics are sellers in the U.S. domestic heartland, but the Russian acquisition adds welcomed diversity to Steel Dynamics product line and strengthens the new parent's hand in a relatively healthy market. This is one natural resources stock that has been strong all along, yet could get stronger.
At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.
This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.
TheStreet Ratings team rates ALCOA INC as a Buy with a ratings score of B. TheStreet Ratings Team has this to say about their recommendation:
"We rate ALCOA INC (AA) a BUY. This is driven by some important positives, which we believe should have a greater impact than any weaknesses, and should give investors a better performance opportunity than most stocks we cover. The company's strengths can be seen in multiple areas, such as its revenue growth, solid stock price performance, increase in net income, good cash flow from operations and growth in earnings per share. We feel these strengths outweigh the fact that the company has had somewhat disappointing return on equity."
You can view the full analysis from the report here: AA Ratings Report