U.S. import prices rose 0.3% in January on automobiles, fuel

Posted 2/14/12

WASHINGTON - Prices of goods imported into the U.S. rose in January for the second time in six months, reflecting higher costs for automobiles and petroleum.

The 0.3 percent gain in the import-price index follows a 0.1 percent decrease in December, Labor Department figures showed Tuesday in Washington. The increase matched the median projection of economists in a Bloomberg News survey. The cost of imported consumer goods excluding cars fell by the most since October 2010.

Slower global growth means commodity costs will probably show little change in coming months, helping limit price pressures. Federal Reserve policy makers project they’ll keep interest rates low at least until late 2014 amid forecasts that inflation will fail to accelerate.

“Prospects of slower global growth suggest that import inflation should continue to moderate,” Sam Bullard, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, N.C., said before the report. “Moderating commodity prices, slower Chinese inflation and a strengthening U.S. dollar should keep import inflation contained over the coming months.”

Projections for import prices ranged from a decrease of 0.2 percent to a 0.8 percent increase, according to the Bloomberg survey of 48 economists.

Compared with a year earlier, import prices rose 7.1 percent, Tuesday’s report showed, compared with an 8.5 percent increase in the 12 months ended in December.

Prices excluding fuel rose 0.1 percent in January from a month earlier. The cost of imported petroleum and petroleum products climbed 1.2 percent from the prior month and was up 24 percent from a year earlier.

Imported Autos, Parts

Imported food was 2.3 percent more expensive last month. Costs of automobiles made abroad climbed 0.5 percent, the most since May, and were up 3.9 percent from January 2011.

Consumer goods import prices excluding vehicles showed a 0.4 percent price decrease, the first drop since March and biggest decline since October 2010. They were up 2.6 percent over the past 12 months.

A strengthening of the U.S. dollar over the past three months may make foreign goods cheaper in the U.S. while American-made goods become more expensive overseas. Since Oct. 31, the Dollar Index, which IntercontinentalExchange Inc. uses to track the currency against that of six major trade partners including the euro and yen, has gained 4.1 percent.

The ThomsonReuters/Jeffries CRB commodity index has averaged 312.75 so far this year, down from an average 321.97 in the last six months of 2011.

Europe’s Economy

Economies in the euro area will probably cool as countries from Greece to Italy take steps to reduce sovereign debt. Countries in emerging markets like China and India have taken steps to slow growth.

The cost of imported goods from China increased 0.3 percent and were up 3.5 percent over the past 12 months.

Imported goods from Japan 0.2 percent, while the cost of goods from the European Union fell 1.1 percent, the biggest decrease since December 2008. Goods from Mexico jumped 1.2 percent, the most since April.

Fed policy makers see inflation declining in 2012 to below their 2 percent goal, with most expecting prices to rise 1.4 percent to 1.8 percent this year, according to forecasts released Jan. 25. In testimony before Congress last week Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said he expects inflation to “remain subdued.”

Price Sensitivity

Beacon Roofing Supply Inc., a Peabody, Mass.-based roofing materials distributor, said efforts to raise prices to recoup costs were limited for its complementary building products unit, that covers materials like siding, windows and water-proofing systems.

“They still need demand to increase to have some needed price increases take hold,” Paul Isabella, chief executive officer, said on an earnings conference call on Feb. 9.

U.S. export prices increased 0.2 percent in January, today’s report also showed, after falling 0.5 percent the previous month. Prices of farm exports rose 1.1 percent, and those of non-farm goods were little changed.

The import-price index is the first of three monthly price gauges from the Labor Department. Data on producer prices come out Feb. 16, followed the next day by the consumer-price index.

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