What to Expect From Alcoa Corp. in 2018

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There's not much for Alcoa (NYSE: AA) shareholders to complain about when it comes to 2017. The stock nearly doubled in the year, which is no small feat for a company that began the year valued at just over $5 billion. It certainly earned the catapult ride higher.

The bauxite, alumina, and aluminum producer increased free cash flow from just $3 million in the first quarter of 2017 to $288 million in the third quarter of 2017. Its cash balance jumped past $1.1 billion. Revenue is climbing each quarter and profits are rolling in more consistently than in the past. By all accounts, Alcoa absolutely crushed it in 2017.

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Now it's time to look ahead. Here's what to expect from Alcoa in 2018.

Continued growth and strong operations

When the former Alcoa split into two companies, Arconic and the new Alcoa, I thought Arconic made off with all of the exciting businesses and growth opportunities dealing in engineered materials. The company focused solely on the aluminum value chain, which was comprised of commodity products that were oversupplied at the time. This seemed like a fragile strategy to me. Boy, have I been proven wrong.

The split turned out to be an awesome move for Alcoa. Arconic may have received the exciting products in the split, but it also got saddled with the lion's share of the former company's debt. That provided the new Alcoa a squeaky clean balance sheet and an opportunity to focus on improving operational efficiency. Management has delivered so far -- and the timing couldn't be better.

The global markets for bauxite, alumina, and aluminum are all expected to be relatively balanced at the beginning of 2018. That may not sound like a catalyst, but considering that each has struggled with oversupply in recent years, it's a bigger springboard than most people may realize.

Multiple factors are at play. Global demand for aluminum likely finished 2017 up 5.5% compared to 2016. China's hungry industrial complexes are continuing to fuel the expansion, but the country is also serving as the driving force for bauxite and alumina markets, too.

New environmental regulations aimed at curbing pollution have resulted in significantly tighter markets and new seasonal trends in the bauxite market. Chinese alumina smelters are expected to take a significant amount of production offline this winter to meet new air-quality requirements. Additionally, China's two major bauxite-producing provinces are creating fresh concerns over supply availability as increased environmental inspections and stricter safety enforcement could disrupt mining.

That has and may continue to drive prices for bauxite, alumina, and aluminum higher as uncertainty in the world's largest market disrupts global trade flows both in and out of China. And that promises to be a great long-term opportunity for Alcoa. The company boasts attractive cost positions in bauxite, alumina, and aluminum with its global footprint.

Of course, the near-term impacts are completely dependent on balances in the three markets. Management currently expects all to remain relatively balanced in 2018, which could result in more modest selling-price gains for aluminum compared to the 17% rise witnessed in 2017. Then again, forecasting the equilibrium between supply and demand has proven more unpredictable recently than in years past, requiring updates in each quarterly period.

What does it mean for investors?

Alcoa spent 2017 rooting out operational inefficiencies and doubling down on growth projects. That strategy promises to continue to pay off in 2018, although likely not accompanied by a near doubling of the stock price as was the case in the most recently completed year.

The best-case scenario for the company would include proving that the recent operational improvements have staying power, and are not merely a fluke. That would allow Alcoa to continue bolstering its cash position -- $1 billion is the minimum level management thinks it needs to weather a market downturn -- and invest in growth opportunities or new technologies to drive costs down even further. Perhaps a few shuttered smelters could even be brought back online in the near term if market conditions allow.

All in all, 2018 could be another solid year for Alcoa, although just how sweet the outcome is will come down to policy decisions in China.

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