Back to top

Image: Bigstock

Zacks Industry Outlook Highlights: Alcoa, Century Aluminum, Rio Tinto, BHP and Glencore

Read MoreHide Full Article

For Immediate Release

Chicago, IL – March 29, 2018 – Today, Zacks Equity Research discusses the Industrial Metals, including Alcoa Corporation (AA - Free Report) , Century Aluminum (CENX - Free Report) , Rio Tinto plc (RIO - Free Report) , BHP Billiton Limited (BHP - Free Report) and Glencore PLC (GLNCY - Free Report) .

Industry: Industrial Metals, Part 2


Industrial metals are considered to be the building blocks of an economy. Despite concerns of a looming global trade war — due to the recent imposition of tariffs — adding an element of uncertainty to the outlook lately, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the industrial metals industry over the long term.

Here we discuss some of the key reasons and what investors in the industrial metals sector can look forward to in the coming months and years:

Automotive & Aerospace Catalysts for Sustained Growth

On the demand side, aluminum consumption is anticipated to improve on a global basis, spurred on by the automotive and packaging industries — the key end markets. The automobile market is becoming increasingly aluminum-intensive, given the metal's recyclability and light-weight properties. The global push to improve fuel efficiency in vehicles is projected to more than double the demand for aluminum in the auto industry by 2025.

The airline industry will grow on the back of strength in the commercial segment on higher air travel demand, new aircraft orders and strong order backlog. This in turn will boost demand for the metal.

Growing Construction Activity to Stoke Demand

The housing and construction sector is the largest consumer of steel today and consequently, of iron ore. The construction sector is the second most rapidly growing sector after transportation in terms of aluminum usage. Building construction (pipes and wires) is also the largest market for copper.

An uptrend has been noticed in real estate activity, like new home initiatives and construction spends, in the United States in the past few quarters. Long-stalled construction projects are being renewed. Requirement for emerging projects, such as education facilities and government buildings, is also creating demand in the sector.

In the long term, as the urban population increases worldwide, so will the need for steel with the requirement to build skyscrapers and public transport infrastructure. Emerging economies will also continue to be major catalysts to support increasing urbanization and industrialization. Naturally, a rebound in construction bodes well for the iron ore and copper industries.

Rectifying the Demand — Supply Imbalance

After aluminum prices bore the brunt of chronic surplus, the global aluminum industry underwent substantial changes to correct the supply-demand picture. This will eventually lead to firm prices. RUSAL had resorted to aluminum production cuts in the past few years. Likewise, Alcoa Corporation has undertaken a number of restructuring measures (including closure of smelters) in the last few years, apart from aggressively pursuing cost-cutting actions.

Further, faced with smog in major cities, China is clamping down on polluting industries. With its high energy intensity and reliance on coal, aluminum could be in the forefront if Chinese government does take steps against polluting industries. Similarly, China’s policy to clean up and consolidate the domestic steel industry is also working in favor of iron ore.

Imposition of Tariffs to Protect Domestic Aluminium Industry

The industrial metals space has benefited from the Trump win. The President’s promise to revive American infrastructure means commodities used to build everything from airports to bridges will benefit under his administration. Protecting U.S. manufacturing from imports was among his key campaign promises. In these lines, Trump has thus imposed a 10% tariff on aluminum imports following the U.S. Department of Commerce’s investigations under Section 232 of the Trade Expansion Act of 1962.

The reports concluded that the quantities of steel and aluminum imports “threaten to impair the national security,” as defined by Section 232. Aluminum imports had risen to 90% of total demand for primary aluminum.

In the aluminum industry, employment fell by 58% in the 2013-2016 period with six smelters being shut down, and only two of the remaining five smelters operating at capacity, despite growth in demand. US aluminium production and the capacity utilization rate fell over the last few years as companies idled plants in response to lower global aluminium prices.

Per the recommendation of the Commerce Department, the imposition of tariff on imports would increase domestic aluminium production from its present capacity of 48% to approximately an 80% operating rate. This is the minimum rate needed for the long-term viability of the industry.

Domestic players will heave a sigh of relief. While Century Aluminum welcomed the Section 232 tariffs and plans to restart one of its plants, Alcoa, being a global aluminum company, is at a higher risk from lower global aluminium prices.

Pickup in Economic Activity to Drive Copper Demand

Copper is a major industrial metal and plays a particularly important role in emerging countries. Given its varied applications, the trends in the copper market are often considered useful indicators of the state of the global economy.

Developments in the world economy are strongly correlated with movements in copper prices. Given that China accounts for the largest share of global copper consumption as well as having a large share in the total production of pure copper, it’s no surprise that there is a strong correlation of the metal with ups and downs in its economy.

In the long haul, expectations of a rising middle class in Asia, particularly in India and China, who are likely to spend more on consumer goods such as air conditioners and refrigerators in the coming years will stimulate demand for copper. Chinese demand for the metal is also likely to grow to comprise 46% of the worldwide copper consumption by 2018.

India to Support Demand Going Ahead

Per the World Steel Association, India’s prospects look bright due to consumption-enhancing reforms and favorable policies to improve infrastructure and manufacturing output. Also, International Monetary Fund’s (“IMF”) remains bullish on the Indian economy and projects India’s GDP growth to rise to 7.4% in 2018 and 7.8% in the next, making it the fastest growing country among emerging economies.  Given that India's consumption of metals has almost doubled in the past 20 years, it will be a major consumer in the years to come.

Renewed Optimism in China

China's economy grew 6.9% in 2017 ahead of the government target of around 6.5%. Growth came despite widespread concerns over a government-led economic restructuring. Notably, China's final GDP figure for 2016 was at 6.7% — the lowest in 26 years. The IMF forecast for growth in China is pegged at 6.6% for 2018 and 6.4% for 2014. China, for its part, will keep its target for economic growth at around 6.5% for 2018, unchanged from last year.

Renewed Interest in Mergers

There have been a revival in mining and metals in 2017. Going forward, deals will be fueled by the industry's return to investment-led strategies aimed at building portfolios rather than the divestment-oriented deals that dominated in 2017.

Mining companies have also started rewarding their long suffering shareholders, resuming share buybacks and announcing dividends. Rio Tinto plc has carried out buybacks and announced record dividends, while BHP Billiton Limited announced a record dividend last August. Glencore PLC has also reinstated paying dividends.

Join us on Facebook:

Zacks Investment Research is under common control with affiliated entities (including a broker-dealer and an investment adviser), which may engage in transactions involving the foregoing securities for the clients of such affiliates.

Media Contact

Zacks Investment Research

800-767-3771 ext. 9339

Past performance is no guarantee of future results. Inherent in any investment is the potential for loss. This material is being provided for informational purposes only and nothing herein constitutes investment, legal, accounting or tax advice, or a recommendation to buy, sell or hold a security. No recommendation or advice is being given as to whether any investment is suitable for a particular investor. It should not be assumed that any investments in securities, companies, sectors or markets identified and described were or will be profitable. All information is current as of the date of herein and is subject to change without notice. Any views or opinions expressed may not reflect those of the firm as a whole. Zacks Investment Research does not engage in investment banking, market making or asset management activities of any securities. These returns are from hypothetical portfolios consisting of stocks with Zacks Rank = 1 that were rebalanced monthly with zero transaction costs. These are not the returns of actual portfolios of stocks. The S&P 500 is an unmanaged index. Visit for information about the performance numbers displayed in this press release.