Reeling aluminum market braces for Alcoa’s outlook

Alcoa Aluminum (Credit: Alcoa)

With the coronavirus crisis clouding the outlook for almost every industry, the aluminum market is hoping to get at least a glimpse of what’s in store from top U.S. producer Alcoa Corp. on Wednesday.

Aluminum, found in everything from jets to iPhones, has been among the worst-performing commodities during the crisis as governments lock down large swathes of their economies. Speculation is rising that the pandemic will spur shutdowns of smelters, which extract the metal from ore for use in applications.

Alcoa, which is set to report first-quarter results on Wednesday, typically also provides an outlook. It forecast in January that global supply would exceed demand by as much as 1 million metric tonnes this year.

Since then, things have only gotten worse, with aluminum prices in March posting the biggest monthly drop since 2011 amid supply-chain disruptions and shutdowns of manufacturers ranging from automakers to aerospace producers.

Views of industrial-metals producers such as Alcoa are likely to get more attention than usual from investors trying to gauge how deep and long-lasting the damage will be from the virus, which is ravaging financial markets and causing a surge in unemployment.

Aluminum has slid about 12% since the beginning of March. It’s now below the cost of output for many companies, signaling further pain ahead for the industry, according to Harbor Intelligence.

“It’s going to be really challenging times,” Harbor Managing Director Jorge Vazquez said in an interview.

While Alcoa is considered less of an earnings and economic bellwether after a split-off of its parts business in 2016 reduced the size of the company, its quarterly outlook is still closely watched within commodities markets. This time, with raw materials bearing much of the brunt of the toll from the virus, the producer’s view could hold more weight.

Andrew Cosgrove, a senior analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said he expects Pittsburgh-based Alcoa to “significantly raise its aluminum-surplus estimates.” He also said that while it doesn’t seem the smelting operations were hurt by coronavirus-induced restrictions to a great extent, risks are rising that earnings guidance will be cut on downstream weakness.

This week, Harbor warned that some U.S. smelters may be forced to shut down as early as next month as contracts with customers begin to reflect the recent drop in aluminum prices.

Alcoa will report earnings for the quarter ended March 31 on Wednesday after market hours, and hosts a call with analysts at 5 p.m. New York time.

(By Joe Deaux)

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