January 23, 2018, 11:51 pm
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US import prices barely rise; wholesale inventories rebound

WASHINGTON- US import prices recorded their smallest increase in five months in December and underlying imported price pressures were muted amid declining costs for food and consumer goods.

The slowdown in import price growth came despite a weak dollar, which could temper expectations that inflation will pick up this year and keep the Federal Reserve on a path of gradual interest rate increases.

“Fed officials are desperate for more inflation and will take it from any quarter,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York. “Today’s import price data will worry the Fed doves even more about too-low inflation.”

The Labor Department said on Wednesday import prices edged up 0.1 percent last month after accelerating 0.8 percent in November. That was the smallest gain since July and was well below economists’ expectations for a 0.5 percent increase.

In the 12 months through December, prices increased 3.0 percent, slowing from November’s 3.3 percent jump. The dollar lost 7 percent of its value against the currencies of the United States’ main trading partners last year.

Producer and consumer price reports on Thursday and Friday could offer fresh clues on the near-term inflation outlook.

The Fed’s preferred inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding food and energy, has undershot the US central bank’s 2 percent target since May 2012. The Fed raised interest rates three times in 2017 and has forecast three rate hikes this year.

US financial markets were little moved by the data as investors digested a report from Bloomberg News that Chinese officials have recommended the country slow down or halt its purchases of US securities. China is the largest foreign holder of US government debt.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year US Treasury note jumped to a 10-month high, while the dollar fell against a basket of currencies. Stocks on Wall Street were trading lower.

Last month, prices for imported petroleum rose 2.0 percent after surging 8.1 percent in November. Import prices excluding petroleum fell 0.2 percent, reversing a 0.2 percent gain in November. Import prices excluding petroleum rose 1.3 percent in the 12 months through December.

“Our expectation for the dollar to decline further, along with another year of decent global growth, should lead non-fuel import prices to press higher this year,” said Sarah House, an economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina. “That said, with goods accounting for only a quarter of core CPI, the lift to more closely watched measures of consumer price inflation should be modest.”

Imported capital goods prices were unchanged in December while the cost of food declined 0.7 percent.  – Reuters
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