As steel prices continue to rise, appliance maker Whirlpool Corp. has tried to fight back. It went to court and won a temporary restraining order preventing a steel supplier from raising prices above a contracted amount.
But Whirlpool had no long-term contract covering the price of stainless steel, which has also climbed, so recently the maker of refrigerators, dishwashers and ranges raised its own prices by 1.5 to 2 percent on appliances containing stainless steel.
When the price of steel spiked earlier this year, many manufacturers were stuck absorbing the full impact. But steel prices have continued to run high, and demand is up, so the cost increases are beginning to creep toward the consumer. Makers of construction materials, kitchen appliances, heating and cooling systems and other products with high steel content are raising prices for their distributors. Some economists think that could be an early sign of inflation.
Shoppers have yet to see much impact, though pressure is mounting on retailers to raise prices. Home Depot Inc., for instance, has seen prices jump on merchandise containing steel but "continues to use its scale and buying power to minimize price increases" for consumers, according to a statement the company sent to store managers.
As the Federal Reserve Board considers when to raise interest rates in the coming weeks, the price of steel -- and how that flows through to finished goods -- is likely to be a factor in the equation, said James W. Paulsen, chief investment strategist at Wells Capital Management.
"It's starting to spook the bond market, for sure, and I think it's on the Fed's discussion table," Paulsen said.
In May, the spot price of hot-rolled steel was up 114 percent over the same month last year, according to Tom Stundza, a metal markets expert at the trade magazine Purchasing who has surveyed steel buyers. Cold-rolled was up 74 percent, and steel plate was up 114 percent on the spot market, Stundza said. Experts expect prices to decline later this summer, but to remain at a higher level than last year.
Whirlpool competitor Maytag Corp. yesterday announced a major corporate restructuring, including cutting 20 percent of its salaried workforce, and blamed it on declining sales and rising steel prices. The company also has increased prices on its products because of the cost of steel, a spokeswoman said.
Auto-parts supplier Delphi Corp. won a temporary court order earlier this year against one of its steel suppliers but reached an out-of-court settlement. Overall, the company has paid 30 to 50 percent more for steel since the beginning of the year, spokesman John Anderson said. Delphi has been unable to pass the increases on to the companies it supplies in the auto industry, which have steadfastly refused to budge on pricing.
"The auto industry is feeling the pressure, too, because of the competitive pressure of the marketplace," Anderson said. "Everybody's trying to cram more sales into an ever more crowded marketplace, and prices aren't going up any."
Other industries are less able to hold the line on prices. Jerr-Dan Corp., the Pennsylvania-based maker of wreckers and auto carriers, said on its Web site that its products now carry surcharges based on steel content. "These are partial pass-through amounts, covering only a portion of the actual surcharges we are seeing from our steel supply houses," the company said on the Web site.
In the last week of May, three heating and cooling equipment suppliers -- Carrier Corp., Evapco Inc. and McQuay International -- announced price increases of 4 to 6 percent because of steel costs, according to the Air Conditioning, Heating & Refrigeration News online trade journal.
That was the second such increase this year for the Taneytown, Md.-based Evapco, which makes large cooling units for buildings. "That's a dramatic impact on our product because it's very much a steel-based product," executive vice president William G. Bartley said. "It's a real issue right now."
Many buyers are mystified by the prices, Stundza said, because the factors propping them up are not as clear as they were a few months ago. "Right now it's really a mess," he said.
Earlier this year, steel prices were being pushed up by huge demand from China and by big increases in the cost of scrap metal, which is a major source of steel. Producers tacked surcharges onto steel shipments to cover those costs.
In the past two months, though, China's government has imposed a slowdown on the country's runaway industrial growth, and the price of scrap -- which is easier to get and process in the warm months of the year -- has leveled off and even declined.
During that time, many steel producers have eased off on surcharges but increased base prices. They say several factors continue to keep prices high: Energy prices are up, especially natural gas. Raw materials such as coke, a coal product burned in the processing of iron ore, have been costly and in short supply. And demand for steel continues to ride high even though China has backed off a bit.
"Global demand is up significantly," said David S. Sutherland, president and chief executive of the Canadian steel company IPSCO Inc. and chairman of the American Iron and Steel Institute trade group. Demand has boosted prices, he said, and helped U.S. steel companies post healthy earnings only a year after struggling to survive.
"The state of the industry is certainly better than it was years or months ago," Sutherland said. Strengthened by mergers, new labor agreements and the shedding of costly pension plans that have been taken over by the government, "there has been a rejuvenation of the industry," he said.
Many manufacturers who are complaining about the cost of steel may have simply gotten used to the unsustainably low prices that were available when the steel industry was collapsing, he said.
But as such increases trickle through the economy, along with increases in other commodity prices such as copper, they could add up to the beginnings of inflation, some experts said. University of Maryland business professor Peter Morici, who has done consulting work for the steel industry, said he thinks the economy is strong enough to absorb it.
"It just seems the consumer psychology has shifted -- there is an expectation of some inflation and there is a little more acceptance of it -- so some price increases are possible at retail stores which in turn make it possible for manufacturers to raise prices a bit," he said.
What's more, many manufacturers find that the price increases are offset by an increase in business. For example, a small Massachusetts metal shop -- Morrison Berkshire Inc. -- has shed more than 50 jobs in the past few years as its traditional work with the textile industry has dried up. But recently the company won a job making metal parts for the retractable roof of the new Arizona Cardinals football stadium.
The price of steel went up 40 percent as the job was underway, but Morrison Berkshire was able to cut other costs and charge the stadium builder 6 percent more than the original price. Thanks to that work and a few other new opportunities, the company has added a handful of jobs in recent weeks, Controller Chuck Lewitt said. "We're getting a little busier," he said.
Like other steel users, Lewitt expects prices to level off or decline for the rest of the year but to remain high. World Steel Dynamics, an information service that monitors the industry, said there is an 85 percent likelihood that steel prices will have a "soft landing" by year's end -- declining somewhat but not dramatically.
"We're pretty optimistic for the balance of the year," said Bob Johns, marketing director for steel producer Nucor Corp.