Whirlpool stock downgraded as tariffs boost prices, undercut washer demand

Key Points
  • Credit Suisse downgrades Whirlpool to neutral from outperform, citing a decline in shipments and concerns about U.S. tariffs.
  • "We will be closely watching consumers' reactions to these [price] increases to determine any adverse impact to revenues," analyst Susan Maklari says.
  • Figures reported by an industry trade organization show that shipments of major appliances have declined 3.8 percent year over year.
Whirlpool washing machines for sale at the Airport Home Appliance store in Concord, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

One Wall Street firm is concerned that rising washing machine prices as a result of the Trump administration's tariffs are weighing on Whirlpool's unit sales.

Credit Suisse downgraded the home appliance manufacturer to neutral from outperform on Wednesday, citing a decline in shipments as reported by an industry trade organization. While manufacturers have marked up all appliances an average of 5.4 percent this year, the majority of the gains are in laundry, with washing machine prices up 13.4 percent and dryers up 13.1 percent since January.

Analyst Susan Maklari noted that home improvement retailer Home Depot during a recent call cited recent laundry sales in a reference to the impact of tariffs. It now expects unit volumes to slow in the near term as industrywide price hikes take effect.

"We will be closely watching consumers' reactions to these increases to determine any adverse impact to revenues," Maklari wrote. "Although we acknowledge choppiness in 2018 given recent shifts in the appliance industry, this contrasts with underlying macro strength, including residential remodel activity. Looking ahead, we could see December shipments rise due to pre-buying ahead of price increases and tariffs."

Figures reported by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers trade organization show that shipments of major appliances have declined 3.8 percent year over year across the industry, despite an easy comparison: Shipments had fallen 1.3 percent in October 2017.

The decline in shipments comes almost a year after President Donald Trump's administration announced it would impose a 20 percent tariff on the first 1.2 million imported large residential washing machines in the first year and a 50 percent tariff on machines above that number. The tariff also included a tax on machine parts, which could drive some costs higher for domestic manufacturers as well.

Whirlpool did not immediately respond to CNBC's request for comment. It originally called the appliance tariffs "a victory for American workers and consumers alike." The company's stock is down 27 percent this year, lagging the S&P 500's 0.6 percent gain.

The White House tacked on more taxes on foreign goods and materials as the year progressed, slapping sanctions on imported steel and aluminum as well as a barrage of goods produced in China. The president and the U.S. Trade Representative hope that the tariffs will force overseas counterparts to the negotiating table and otherwise protect American business.

The president has had mixed success with the tactic, producing both a revised version of the North American Free Trade Agreement as well as headaches for longtime economic allies like Canada and the European Union. Trump has specifically targeted Beijing with tariffs for alleged intellectual property theft as well as contributing to the massive trade imbalance between the two nations.

In September, the White House announced a round of tariffs on another $200 billion of products imported from China at a 10 percent rate. Should Trump and China President Xi Jinping fail to broker a trade truce before 2019, the tax will climb to 25 percent.

For its part, the broader appliance industry has criticized the White House's aggressive use of tariffs, with the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers saying the strategy will likely have a negative impact on consumers.

"Unfortunately, even after AHAM testified opposing tariffs for certain products, the final tariff list still includes dozens of components and parts necessary in the manufacture of most major and small appliances," the organization wrote in the wake of the announced tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese imports.

Jennifer Cleary, the group's vice president of regulatory affairs, said: "As an industry, AHAM's members have been successful global traders for decades, and support free and fair trade that allows for unfettered competition that drives innovation and operational efficiencies in the marketplace."

Higher costs for Americans as a result of tariffs is largely unsurprising on Wall Street, with many top brokerages predicting a significant uptick in prices early in the year. Goldman Sachs, for instance, wrote in January that U.S. consumers should expect an 8 percent to 20 percent increase in the price of a new washing machine this year.