Once it was one of the most predictable rituals of American business: U.S. Steel Corp. would announce a price increase and, one after another, the other major steel companies would follow the leader. The routine sparked a memorable confrontation in 1962, when U.S. Steel backed off an announced price hike to escape the wrath of President Kennedy.
But in the 1980s, the combination of recession and a sharp escalation in global steel competition halted that practice, leaving the industry so mired in excess capacity and so flooded with low-priced imports that no significant price increase could stick.
American steel producers are expected to ship 75 million tons of steel this year, according to industry forecasts, a far cry from the 100-million-ton level of 1979, before the roof fell in.
And for each ton shipped, the industry lost $17 in the first quarter of this year.
But last month, U.S. Steel tried again, announcing a 10 percent increase on sheet steel effective next January, and LTV Corp., Bethlehem Steel Corp. and Inland Steel Co. Inc. all followed suit.
Now the question is whether the price increase will stick and give shell-shocked steel companies what would be, from their perspective, a badly needed infusion of cash and profits. The obstacle isn't a threatening phone call from the White House this time -- it's the industry's persistent bane: competition from lower-priced imported steel.
A package of steel import quotas announced by President Reagan during last year's election campaign thus far have produced only a slight reduction in steel shipments to this country.
Imports accounted for slightly more than 25.6 percent of American steel consumption through the first eight months of this year. That's only a fraction below 1984's record level of 26 percent, and well above President Reagan's import quota goal of about 18 percent (plus an additional 1.7 million tons of semifinished steel).
The main reason is the delay in putting the quota plan into effect, said one steel company attorney who is advising U.S. trade negotiators. There have been reductions in shipments from countries such as Mexico, Brazil, Spain and South Africa that have set up export controls called for by the plan.
The administration continues to seek the signatures of other countries to the quota plan and is trying to negotiate tighter restrictions with European nations.
Surges in shipments from some European countries that have not adopted the Reagan plan accounted for much of the excess imports. Administration trade negotiators want that loophole closed through a new pact with the Europeans.
The current steel trade agreement with the Europeans ends this month, and negotiations on a future deal are going on now in Brussels. "Next year is going to be much closer to the target," said Joseph Papovich, director of steel trade in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative. "In fact, it might be below the target."
Robert Hageman, a steel industry analyst with Kidder, Peabody, says there is evidence in the spot market that import quotas finally are helping to shore up prices. "You are seeing a termination in the free fall in the prices, which has been going on for 1 1/2 or two years based on expectations that imports would drop considerably, and that we won't go into a recession in 1986."
Depending on the kind of product, some major steel-exporting countries already have exceeded their quotas, he noted, and that will oblige them to reduce shipments in 1986 to pay for the excess exports this year.
It is one thing for steel prices to stabilize. It's another for the industry to make a sizable price increase hold up against the discounting and price shaving that have been the rule in recent years.
In the past, U.S. Steel could lead the industry because the industry's pricing structure was dominated by a few powerful companies, analyst Peter F. Marcus of Paine Webber wrote last month. But imports and the growth of smaller, lower-cost U.S. mills have drastically reduced the majors' pricing power.
Over the past year, the average price of a ton of steel dropped $30 to $455, Marcus calculated -- despite a good performance by the economy overall. "Only during periods of very strong demand, it would appear, can we count on steel price increases," he wrote in a recent report.
But, instead of rising, the demand for steel may be headed downward.
"The import controls are an official delusion," said John Tumazos, a steel industry analyst with Oppenheimer & Co. "What they will do is change the form of the import, but I doubt they'll have a significant impact on the level."
The efforts to reduce the share of the American steel market that is claimed by imports is being undercut by fundamental changes in the market itself that are reducing the demand for steel, Tumazos said.
When Volkswagen of America announces that it will import more than 100,000 cars for the American market from Brazil, when Chrysler Corp. decides to increase the Japanese steel used in its models and when General Motors Corp. plans to expand the use of plastic skins on some of its subcompacts, they are taking big, permanent bites out of the steel market.
A combination of a tepid economy -- averaging a little over 2 percent annual growth, adjusted for inflation, since 1980 -- and the replacement of steel with other products in the auto, container, construction and other industries, pushed total steel consumption down to 99 million tons last year from 105 million tons in 1981, including imports.
Tumazos argued that, even if there is no recession next year, the trend in domestic production and overall demand for steel is likely to be downward, with domestic steel plants running at only 70 percent of capacity, on average. That isn't enough to support a price increase, he said. "The worst thing the steel companies can do is raise prices," Tumazos said. Higher prices for steel -- even with a working quota system -- will open the window for increased shipments of finished products from abroad and a faster substitution of other materials for steel.
"What we'll do, if we reduce import penetration by 5 to 10 percent by controls, is reduce domestic steel consumption by a larger amount," he said.
To survive and prosper, the steel industry must find more ways to drive its costs down, by reducing material and energy costs and by bringing labor costs down more -- particularly by eliminating unneeded jobs, he said.
The industry and the United Steelworkers union face a vital showdown over labor costs when the industry's master labor contract expires July 31. By then, wages, benefits and other labor costs will have risen to a maximum of $23.50 an hour under the contract, a level that would cripple the industry, according to the companies and their Wall Street observers.
At Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., however, workers struck in July rather than accept an ultimatum of $15.20 in hourly labor costs from Dennis Carney, then the chairman, even after the firm had filed a Chapter 11 bankruptcy petition.
After Wheeling-Pittsburgh's board ousted Carney, the new management and union negotiators agreed on an $18-an-hour contract (representing about $1 an hour in new concessions by the steelworkers, which could be recovered if steel prices rise enough). Tumazos, arguing that the cut is not enough, said Carney was on the right course with a proposal that would have cut steel costs by $50 a ton, providing a much-longer-term guarantee of jobs. "I have the greatest respect for Dennis Carney," Tuzamos said.
Wheeling-Pittsburgh's creditor banks attacked the settlement as dangerous for the company's financial health and their chances of repayment, but late Friday, a U.S. bankruptcy judge approved the steel maker's tentative agreement with its 8,200 striking union workers, clearing the way for a return to work.
It remains to be seen whether other steel company executives will push a confrontation over labor costs as far as Carney did.
Even reduced labor costs may not provide the domestic industry with enough relief. Here, the debate returns to the import issue. The high levels of steel imports have cemented the view in labor and management alike that the United States is being taken advantage of.
Donald Trautlein, chairman of Bethlehem Steel Corp. and chairman of the American Iron and Steel Institute, delivered that message this month to an international steel conference in London.
Trautlein's company has lost $1.8 billion since 1981, despite plant closings, layoffs and costly investments that have cut its production costs significantly.
The firm will report another quarterly loss this week.
"The U.S. government stands alone among nations in permitting up to 20 percent of our country's steel requirements to be supplied by imports," Trautlein said Oct. 8. "No other major steel-producing nation in the free world is even a net importer," he said, calling on European governments to comply with the Reagan quota program.
"But even in the United States, there comes a time when our government leaders say, 'Enough is enough,' " he said.