What the F-150 tells us about the aluminum industry
Kicking off the Detroit Auto Show this week, Ford proudly unveiled its new F-150 pickup truck. The radically revamped 2015 model sports a body constructed of aluminum, a design move that sheds 700 pounds to make it lighter and more fuel efficient than its steel predecessors.
But while the automaker is getting all the attention, the revamp also sheds light on another industry that's been a lot less exciting for investors—aluminum.
"Auto sales have been much stronger," said Monica Bonar, a senior director at Fitch Ratings covering base metals. "That's something that has been benefiting aluminum in the U.S."
The aluminum industry was hit hard by the global economic slowdown as demand dropped and the resulting supply glut drove prices down. Historically, the major companies operating in the industry have seen their stocks trade more in line with the aluminum spot price traded on the London Metals Exchange than with other kinds of equities. So not surprisingly, when the price of aluminum plummeted from its 2011 peak, so did the shares of aluminum makers like Alcoa. Those raw metal prices have stayed cheap, down more than a third from 2011, and producers have continued to feel the pinch.
But aluminum makers have increasingly been shifting from mining, refining and smelting operations. Those so-called upstream businesses have historically defined them and have kept their performances so closely tied to raw prices, cutting operations and idling smelters.
Instead, companies like Alcoa have been doubling down on "value-add operations" that don't suffer from those low raw prices—in some cases, even benefiting from them. One major example: aluminum technologies, or so-called midstream and downstream businesses that are based on the manufacturing of fabricated aluminum products for other industries.
This is where Ford's new pickup truck comes into play. Auto body parts crafted from aluminum are one high-profile example of this diversification.
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"Aluminum pure-plays could be a thing of the past," said Andrew Lane, an equity research analyst with Morningstar. It's a sentiment other analysts echo.
Take Alcoa. Analysts say the New York-based company has been on the forefront of this industry-wide diversification—something Alcoa's CEO Klaus Kleinfeld was quick to stress after the Jan. 9 fourth quarter earnings failed to meet analysts' expectations, missing on earnings per share by 2 cents.
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"What you're seeing reflected in the earnings is that we are building up our value-add businesses," Kleinfeld told CNBC. "We are growing it. It now makes up 57 percent of our revenues and 80 percent of our segment profits, and that's what we're going after."
Kleinfeld pointed to opportunities like, well, the auto industry. Indeed Alcoa was the company initially tapped to provide aluminum parts for the new F-150's early test models. It's also been expanding production of items like truck wheels, industrial gas turbines, and aircraft parts don't even use aluminum—but rather nickel and titanium alloys.
"Alcoa's generated the vast majority of its operating income from its global rolled products and its engineered products and services segments," said Lane. "About 70 percent of operating income is stemmed through those downstream segments in 2012 and 2013 and we expect that trend to continue." He expects downstream businesses to generate $1 billion in revenue growth for the company through 2016.
Competitors like Novelis, Rio Tinto and Russia's Rusal have also been branching out. Novelis, for example, has been investing in U.S. factories producing aluminum products for autos as well. These companies have been doubling down on aluminum technologies, increasing mining operations of other kinds of materials like zinc and palladium, and in some markets shedding or shuttering upstream operations altogether.
(Read more: Drilling down, Cramer sees many Alcoa positives)
"All of the aluminum miners are in a period of consolidation," said Bonar. "That can result in increased competition. For a lot of industries down the line you will eventually run into tight supply."
Nonetheless, tight supply could still be years away, she cautioned, making diversification initiatives like supplying parts to pickup trucks ever-more necessary now.
Also worth noting: A number of headwinds continue to plague the industry overall.
While analysts expect demand to climb this year for the base metal, the question remains whether it will be enough to truly spark a price recovery, especially if China's economic growth slows and the country's production continues to outpace consumption. Another industry that will need to pick up for aluminum to truly rebound is nonresidential construction, which has been slow to return in the U.S. since the downturn. Fitch Ratings projects a 5 percent increase in the U.S. for 2014.
—By CNBC's Morgan Brennan. Follow her on Twitter