NEW YORK (Reuters) - Aluminum producer Alcoa Inc surprised Wall Street with a first-quarter profit after a loss in the fourth quarter of 2011 as global markets improved, especially in the aerospace and automobile sectors.
The results, which beat analysts’ forecast for a loss, sent the company’s stock up 6 percent to $9.80 in after-hours trading on the New York Stock Exchange.
“We pretty much see growth in all global end markets,” Chief Executive Officer Klaus Kleinfeld told analysts on a conference call. “On aerospace, the market goes from strength to strength.”
He said demand for aluminum in North America was strong in most industrial sectors except for building and construction.
“China, (there is) growth across all segments. A little softer but still good, good growth. The markets in Europe are hovering along,” he said.
Alcoa, which makes aluminum for aircraft, cars and beverage cans, raised its 2012 global growth forecast for the aerospace market by 3 percentage points to 13-14 percent and said it expects global growth in the auto industry of 3-7 percent.
The company also projects a global aluminum supply deficit in 2012 and reaffirmed its forecast that global aluminum demand would grow 7 percent in 2012, on top of the 10 percent growth seen in 2011.
Alcoa said income from continuing operations in the first quarter was $94 million, or 9 cents per share, compared with a profit of $309 million, or 27 cents per share in the same quarter last year. Excluding items, income was 10 cents per share.
Revenue rose slightly to $6 billion, Pittsburgh-based Alcoa said. Analysts on average were expecting a loss of 4 cents per share and revenue of $5.77 billion, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Bridget Freas, an analyst with Morningstar in Chicago, noted it was the first time Alcoa had beat earnings estimates by a considerable margin for many quarters.
“A key for me is the revenue number. To be able to keep your revenue constant when prices are down eases concerns that demand is weakening,” Freas said.
Alcoa is the first company in the Dow Jones industrial average to report earnings for the March quarter and considered a bellwether for the rest of the materials sector.
“Clearly, they’re doing much better downstream, which you’d expect because the metal price was down,” said Charles Bradford, an analyst with Bradford Research in New York.
“I was expecting break-even, so I was higher than the average, but if you had told me 10 cents, I never would have believed it.”
Alcoa said the improvement over the fourth quarter was driven by strong productivity improvements across all businesses, higher realized prices for aluminum, and improved volume and mix. These were offset somewhat by a lower realized alumina price and higher input costs, the company said.
A 9 percent drop in the realized price of aluminum was partially offset by third-party shipments in the upstream businesses, better volume and mix in the midstream business, and improved volume in the downstream business, Alcoa said.
Compared to the first quarter of 2011, it said revenue in its commercial transportation business was up 32 percent and aerospace revenue rose 15 percent.
Alcoa’s stock price has fallen 46 percent since April 2011 — mostly on a drop in global aluminum prices — prompting the company to cut the performance-based element of Kleinfeld’s 2011 compensation by 45 percent.
Aluminum prices are down almost 20 percent from a year ago but have been creeping higher, reaching $2,126 per metric ton (1.1023 tons) on March 31 from $2,020 on January 1.
The company has already cut back aluminum production and last week said it would reduce production of alumina, a key raw material, by 4 percent.
Reporting By Steve James; Editing by Bernard Orr