The aluminum producer, which always kicks off the earnings season, delivered more of a punt than a kickoff. The Dow bellwether reported an 81.3% drop in profits, as the global slowdown and production cuts weighed on profits.
Reporting after Monday's market close, Alcoa said income from continuing operations came in at $61 million, or 6 cents a share, on revenue just a hair under $6 billion. While significantly lower than the same period a year ago, the lackluster results still managed to beat Wall Street's tepid expectations (analysts were looking for 5 cents on revenue of $5.8 billion).
Chairman and CEO Klaus Kleinfeld said in a statement following the earnings release, "Alcoa maintained revenue strength amid solid liquidity by driving high profitability in our mid and downstream businesses and by reducing costs and improving performance in our upstream businesses."
Contributing to the profit decline was a global glut resulting from stagnant and slowing growth in many areas around the world, especially China.
The aluminum producer is the first major U.S. company to release its first quarter earnings report, and these closely watched results often set the tone for the earnings season.
But investors shouldn't get their hopes up - expectations for first quarter earnings are low.
Earnings growth for the first three months of 2012 was lackluster at best - even though the stock market produced some of the best quarterly market gains since 1998. The Dow rose some 8%, the Standard & Poor's 500 Index gained 12%, and the NASDAQ nearly climbed a whopping 19%.
If this latest batch of earnings comes with a plethora of nasty and unwelcome surprises, the recent market rally could be derailed.
Sam Stovall, chief equity strategist at S&P Capital told the Associated Press, "It's supposed to be a very weak quarter, but Wall Street is freaking out because they don't understand why."
Stocks failed to get traction in the middle of last week after Alcoa (NYSE: AA) and Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) earnings reports underwhelmed investors, and Friday they spun off the road. The culprit: Fears that recent earnings gains represented a peak, and that weak readings on the economy were more representative of current conditions.
Retail sales disappointed and the Federal Reserve cut its 2010 growth forecast. Even word that Singapore grew at a record pace of 19.3% in the second quarter couldn't lift the air of despondency on Wall Street.
The aluminum giant swung from a loss of $0.26 in the same quarter last year to a gain of $0.13 per share, exceeding by 18% the 11-cent average estimate of 17 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg News.
"It's a very positive signal for economic growth and the stock market generally," John Stephenson, who helps manage $1.6 billion including Alcoa shares at First Asset Investment Management in Toronto, told Bloomberg. "Maybe end-use demand has not been destroyed. That's a very good sign and a great way to start off this Q2 earnings season."
For the first time since the second quarter of 2007, earnings of stocks in the Standard & Poor's 500 Index should be higher than they were the year before. That would break the longest losing streak since S&P began keeping track of operating earnings in 1991.
"It's going to be on the plus side again," James Swanson, chief investment strategist at MFS Investment Management told The Wall Street Journal.
In fact, operating earnings for a group of companies selected by Thomson Reuters are expected to nearly triple on a year-to-year basis, mostly because of unfavorable conditions in 2008, when financial companies lost $81 billion in the fourth quarter.