A steel-auto tug-of-war

The interaction between the steel industry and automakers is starting to look like a giant tug of war.

In August, steel makers tried to jam a price increase down the throats of their customers.

ArcelorMittal CEO Lakshmi Mittal told The Wall Street Journal that his company -- the world's biggest steel maker -- needed to raise prices 10 percent to cover its raw-material costs. It didn't work.

Steel makers are trying again this month, but they aren't likely to succeed this time either, predicts analyst Tom Stundza of IHS Global Insight.

In North America, five steel makers produce most of the cold-rolled steel that automakers use for body panels. But the steel industry can't dictate prices to the market -- at least, not yet. Steel customers "are negotiating down to every penny," Stundza says.

What about metal prices next year? IHS Global Insight projects stable aluminum prices and rising copper prices. But steel is a riddle. No one expects robust auto sales in North America next year, so prices ought to be stable.

There's even a chance that steel prices could fall -- a lot. China's economy is cooling a bit, and Chinese mills might export their excess hot-rolled steel, the cheaper stuff used for under-the-hood components. That would create a glut.

Nobody knows for sure. "Everyone is at sixes and sevens to figure out what will happen in China," Stundza says.

What's the takeaway for North American automakers? Next year they'll have a grace period to work out their price indexing policies with suppliers that use steel, copper, aluminum and other metals.

But when China's economy starts sucking up the world's raw materials again, all bets are off.