Aluminum producers have been under pressure to cut expenses as prices languish below costs due to a big global surplus. Rio Tinto plc (LON: RIO), one of the world's top mining companies, has sold off numerous aluminum assets, following its $38 billion takeover of Alcan in 2007. However, a new shift in auto manufacturing-where more aluminum is integrated into the crafting of car bodies-may bode well for buyers in the space.
Dutch-owned Constellium NV (NYSE: CSTM) and Tokyo-based UACJ Corp. (TYO: 5741) announced in late January that the aluminum products makers will invest about $150 million to develop a U.S. production facility for aluminum sheet for car bodies, as part of a new joint venture. Also in January, Novelis Inc., the largest producer of aluminum rolled products, put forward plans to expand its global automotive capacity. The move includes spending $205 million to boost its global aluminium sheet capacity by 240,000 tons per year, after investing nearly $550 million for the cause in the previous two years. Atlanta-based Novelis manufactured products end up in automobiles, beverage cans and flat-screen televisions.
Both deals are in response to a growing demand for light-weight materials and coincide with car manufacturers, namely Ford Motor Corp. (NYSE:F), now using aluminum to raise fuel efficiency as a way to meet the latest regulatory requirements and consumer trends.
For example, the new 2015 Ford F-150 truck, unveiled in early 2014, is noted for its increased use of aluminum in the engine block and other parts of the frame, which Ford says will save weight (up to 700 pounds) while maintaining the existing ruggedness, towing capacity and performance.
This sets the stage for growth, not only for suppliers like Novelis, Constellium and UACJ, but also for competitor Alcoa Inc. (NYSE: AA).
The Pittsburgh-based metal producer recently completed a $300 million expansion at one of its facilities to specifically take advantage of the increased automotive demand for aluminum. Alcoa sees automakers doubling the amount of aluminum used in vehicles by 2025, with the biggest uptick in body sheet content.
"As Ford's demand for aluminum increases, you can expect to see these producers hit greater economies of scale," says Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst for Kelley Blue Book, an Irvine, Calif.-based automotive consulting firm.
At least in the U.S., aluminum demand, especially from companies like Alcoa, should be on the rise, he adds.
"With the expectation that it will continue to grow," Gutierrez says, "that makes producing aluminum in the U.S. more attractive for those looking to get in the game."