Why Alcoa's better-than-expected earnings worry the market

10/10/2012 4:16 pm EST

Focus: STOCKS

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

It’s not the dimension; it’s the direction that has the financial markets worried this morning after Alcoa (AA) reported third quarter earnings of 3 cents a share—excluding non-recurring items. That was better than the consensus estimate of a flat quarter. At $5.83 billion revenue was down 9.1% from the third quarter of 2011 but above the consensus estimate of $5.57 billion.

The problem, though, is that those better than consensus numbers came with a lower company forecast on global aluminum demand for 2012. Alcoa now estimates that global demand will grow by 6% in 2012. That’s down from the company’s earlier forecast of 7% growth in demand for the year. 6% demand growth would be the lowest rate of growth since the recession of 2008-2009. Demand grew by 13% in 2010 and 10% in 2011. (The company also said that it still expects that global aluminum demand will double from 2010 to 2020.)

The reason for the lower forecast? China, of course. Slower economic growth in China means slower growth in demand for aluminum.

When does that slower growth in China stop and when does China’s growth rate start to accelerate again? Alcoa CEO Klaus Kleinfeld told analysts and investors on the company’s conference call that he was “pretty confident” that stimulus measures by the Beijing government would result in an acceleration in demand, but that it was “probably going to take until the end of the fourth quarter” before the company and the Chinese economy in general saw the results.

You can see why this earnings report might make investors uneasy. On the one hand, Alcoa has reported a pattern of steady falling growth in global aluminum demand from 13% in 2010 to 10% in 2011 to a forecast 6% in 2012.

On the other hand, all that investors have is a CEO’s confidence that China’s stimulus measures will work and that investors should be able to see the results at the end of the fourth quarter.

It doesn’t help that already today other companies have echoed Alcoa’s forecast for slower growth. For example, diesel engine maker Cummins (CMI) today lowered its full year revenue guidance for 2012 to $17 billion from a previous $18 billion. Earnings Before Interest and Taxes (EBIT) are expected to be 13.5% for the year, down from prior guidance of 14.25% to 14.5%.

Cummins actually reports earnings on October 30.

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