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US import prices flat; US dollar curbing imported inflation

[WASHINGTON] US import prices were unchanged in July as a surge in the cost of fuels was offset by weak prices elsewhere, suggesting a strong dollar was keeping imported inflation pressures in check.

The Labor Department said on Tuesday the flat reading in import prices last month followed an upwardly revised 0.1 per cent drop in June. Import prices were previously reported to have declined 0.4 per cent in June.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast import prices gaining 0.1 per cent in July. In the 12 months through July, import prices rose 4.8 per cent, the largest gain since February 2012, after increasing 4.7 per cent in June.

Last month, prices for imported fuels and lubricants jumped 1.6 per cent after rising 1.3 per cent in June. Food prices dropped 1.8 per cent after declining 2.6 per cent in June. Excluding fuels and food, import prices slipped 0.1 per cent in July after falling 0.2 per cent in the prior month.

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The so-called core import prices increased 1.6 per cent in the 12 months through July. The monthly drop in core import prices likely reflected the dollar's 0.5 per cent appreciation against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners in July.

The US dollar has gained more than 4 per cent on a trade-weighted basis so far this year, which could temper the anticipated increases in the prices of some imported goods as a result of trade tensions between the United States and major economies.

The Trump administration has imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum imports to protect domestic industries from what it says is unfair foreign competition. Major trading partners, including the European Union, China, Mexico and Canada have responded similarly with tariffs of their own.

Washington has also slapped import duties on Canadian lumber as well as a range of consumer goods from China.

In July, import prices for nonfuel industrial supplies and materials tumbled one per cent, the biggest monthly drop since January 2016, after rising 0.2 per cent in June.

The cost of imported capital goods dipped 0.1 per cent after a similar drop in June. Imported motor vehicle prices were unchanged. The cost of consumer goods excluding automobiles rose 0.3 per cent, reversing June's 0.3 percent drop.

Prices for goods imported from China fell 0.2 per cent in July, the first drop since September 2017, after edging up 0.1 per cent in the prior month. Prices for Chinese imports rose 0.2 per cent in the 12 months through July.

The report also showed export prices fell 0.5 per cent in July, the biggest drop since May 2017, after rising 0.2 per cent in June. Prices for agricultural products fell 5.3 per cent last month, the largest decline since October 2011, weighed down by a 14.1 per cent plunge in soybean prices.

China's retaliatory tariffs on US soybeans have driven down prices in recent months. There were also declines in the prices for corn, wheat, fruits and nuts in July.

Export prices increased 4.3 per cent on a year-on-year basis in July after rising 5.3 per cent in June. Agricultural prices fell two per cent in the 12 months to July, the first annual decrease in a year.

REUTERS