WASHINGTON - U.S. 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 Labor Department said on Wednesday import prices edged up 0.1 percent last month after an upwardly revised 0.8 percent rise in November. That was the smallest gain since July and was well below economists' expectations for a 0.5 percent increase.
Import prices were previously reported to have increased 0.7 percent in November. In the 12 months through December, prices increased 3.0 percent, slowing from November's 3.3 percent jump. They rose 3.0 percent in 2017, the biggest calendar year increase since 2011, after advancing 1.9 percent in 2016.
The data was released ahead of producer and consumer price reports later this week, which could offer fresh clues on the near-term inflation outlook.
Economists are optimistic that recent dollar depreciation and a tightening labor market will help to lift inflation toward the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target this year.
The U.S. central bank's preferred inflation measure, the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index excluding food and energy, has undershot its target since May 2012.
The dollar lost 7 percent of its value against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners last year.
U.S. financial markets were little moved by the import price data as investors digested a report from Bloomberg News that Chinese officials have recommended the country slow down or halt its purchases of U.S. securities.
Yields on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note jumped to a 10-month high, while the dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. stocks 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."
WHOLESALE INVENTORIES REBOUND
Imported capital goods prices were unchanged in December as was the cost of motor vehicles. The cost of imported food declined 0.7 percent last month after tumbling 1.7 percent in November.
The price of goods imported from China fell 0.1 percent in December after advancing 0.3 percent the prior month. Prices for imports from China dropped 0.2 percent in 2017 and have not recorded a calendar-year increase since 2011.
The cost of goods imported from Canada and Mexico was unchanged in December after rising 2.3 percent and 0.1 percent respectively in November.
The Labor Department also reported that export prices slipped 0.1 percent in December, declining for the first time since June, as agricultural prices fell for a second straight month. Export prices rose 0.5 percent in November.
They increased 2.6 percent year-on-year after rising 3.1 percent in November. Export prices gained 2.6 percent in 2017 after rising 1.3 percent in 2016. That was also the largest calendar-year increase since 2011.
In a separate report on Wednesday, the Commerce Department said wholesale inventories rebounded 0.8 percent after dropping 0.4 percent in October. The department reported last month that wholesale inventories jumped 0.7 percent in November.
The component of wholesale inventories that goes into the calculation of gross domestic product - wholesale stocks excluding autos - also increased 0.8 percent in November, suggesting inventories could add to GDP in the fourth quarter.
Inventory investment contributed almost eight-tenths of a percentage point to the economy's 3.2 percent annualized growth pace in the third quarter. Inventory investment accelerated in the third quarter after slowing sharply at the start of 2017.
Auto inventories increased 0.7 percent in November, reversing October's 0.7 percent drop. There were also increases in inventories of petroleum, machinery and electrical goods.
Sales at wholesalers shot up 1.5 percent in November after increasing 0.8 percent in October. Sales of motor vehicles rose 1.2 percent in November after jumping 3.4 percent the prior month.
At November's sales pace it would take wholesalers 1.24 months to clear shelves, the fewest since November 2014, down from 1.25 months in October.