Industry feels pinch from rising oil prices

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Energy prices appear to have reached a tipping point for many industrial users as the hectic pace of energy inflation outstrips the capacity of companies to pass on higher costs to consumers.

US, European and Asian stock markets all fell last week as oil reached $60 per barrel and corporate leaders around the world issued a series of high-profile profit warnings.

Shares in energy-intensive companies such as manufacturing and transport were hardest hit. Yet even those companies that have previously minimised the pain by passing on price increases to their customers are finding it harder to do so.

FedEx, for example, the US delivery group that has been a leading beneficiary of booming global trade, broke its winning streak by warning that this quarter's earnings would be hit by jet fuel costs despite an automatic surcharge for customers.

And the metals industry, enjoying its best growth for years, is squeezed between the high cost of energy-related inputs such as electricity and coal and slowing demand from leading customers.

Complaints from US industry will have a particular urgency this week as Congress considers an energy bill that many claim should help ease pressure on oil, electricity and natural gas prices.

John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers, is leading the lobbying by arguing that current problems will get far worse if policymakers do not respond soon.

Andrew Liveris, chief executive of Dow Chemical, is particularly concerned that high energy costs in the US are making its manufacturing industries permanently uncompetitive. “In the past two years, the chemical industry's natural gas costs, alone, have increased by over $10bn at a cost of $50bn in sales lost to foreign competition,” he said.

“And, since the first natural gas spike in 2000, more than 100,000 jobs one-tenth of the US chemical industry workforce have disappeared.”

But across the Pacific few rival Japanese companies are immune from energy problems either. Asahi Kasei, one of Japan's largest chemical manufacturers, warned its variable costs were increasing by Y3bn ($27.5m) for every Y1,000 per kl rise in the price of naphtha, an oil product.

Despite this, it has no plans to reduce the capacity of its plants or move them to China perhaps because many of the same cost pressures exist across Asia.

Few companies, wherever they are, can escape rising energy prices entirely, and most will eventually look to pass costs on. Vimal Shah, chief executive officer of Bidco, a Kenyan manufacturer of cooking oils and soaps, has seen its energy and transport costs rise 20 per cent.

He says: “You cannot scale back, it's not only our company that is affected, everyone is affected across the board, so in terms of competitiveness we are not better or worse off. Ultimately, it's the consumer who pays, and the consumer is going to have to spend more money.”

Additional reporting by Andrew England in Nairobi

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