Better Buy: Alcoa Inc. vs. Hecla Mining

By Reuben Gregg Brewer Markets Fool.com

Alcoa Inc. (NYSE: AA) is one of the world's largest aluminum companies whileHecla Mining (NYSE: HL) predominantly digs silver and gold out of the ground. They are very different businesses for investors to analyze. But there's an overlap: They are both making important business improvements that have big implications for their respective futures. Here's the question: Do you want a company that's getting smaller to get better or one that's getting bigger to get better?

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Image source: Alcoa Inc.

Shrinking the business

When it comes to slimming a business down, Alcoa's separation from its former specialty parts division,Arconic, was bold. But that transaction, which took place in 2016, was the culmination of a long-term shift. Part of that was selling and closing assets in the aluminum business, although the company's not quite done, announcing on Jan. 3 of this year that it was permanently closing a facility it had merely idled in late 2015.

All the efforts to trim down has been well worth it, however, because Alcoa has materially improved its industry position. For example, it was able to push itself from the 30th percentile of the cost curve in alumina in 2010 to the 17th percentile last year. And it moved from the 51st to the 38th percentile in aluminum. A lot of heavy lifting went into that but, essentially, Aloca needed to slim down a more than 100-year-old company so it could better compete in today's market.

Hecla Mining's production growth. Image source: Helca Mining.

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Growing the business

Hecla Mining, meanwhile, has been going about things a bit differently in recent years. Since 2012, the miner has increased its silver production by around 150%. Its gold production grew by an even more impressive 320%.

A key distinction here is that this success has been driven by internal investments. For example, over the past decade, roughly 80% of the company's silver production and reserve growth has come from its own drilling. Only about 20% was achieved through acquisition. In other words, Hecla is truly a company getting better through growth, and it has more planned growth in the works, too.

The big digs in Hecla's development pipeline. Image source: Hecla Mining.

Bigger or smaller?

Clearly, if you are looking for an aluminum company, Hecla doesn't make sense for your portfolio. The same holds true for silver and gold. Alcoa just doesn't do that. But if you are looking for a mining and metals company that is improving its businesses, then both Hecla and Alcoa should be on your watch list. The question is which one is better positioned for the future from here.

After Alcoa's business reset -- with the breakup from Arconic -- the aluminum business is in a much better financial position than it was just a few years ago. However, that transition has been about cleaning up an aging business. This turnaround story is still in progress. Hecla's underlying story is about growth at this point -- no turnaround needed. Rising precious metals markets have helped it along, but it was improving its underlying business even during the deep commodity downturn.

If you can handle the ups and downs of precious metals prices, Hecla's fundamental growth story looks better than Alcoa's right now.

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Reuben Brewer has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.