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US import prices post smallest gain in five months

[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 Labor Department said on Wednesday import prices edged up 0.1 per cent last month after an upwardly revised 0.8 per cent rise in November. That was the smallest gain since July and was well below economists' expectations for a 0.5 per cent increase.

Import prices were previously reported to have increased 0.7 per cent in November. In the 12 months through December, prices increased three per cent, slowing from November's 3.3 per cent jump. They rose three per cent in 2017, the biggest calendar year increase since 2011, after advancing 1.9 per cent 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 US dollar depreciation and a tightening labor market will help to lift inflation toward the Federal Reserve's two per cent target this year.

The US 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 US dollar lost 7 per cent of its value against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners last year. US financial markets were little moved by the import prices data.

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

Imported capital goods prices were unchanged in December as was the cost of motor vehicles. The cost of imported food declined 0.7 per cent last month after tumbling 1.7 per cent in November.

The price of goods imported from China fell 0.1 per cent in December after advancing 0.3 per cent the prior month. Prices for imports from China dropped 0.2 per cent 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 per cent and 0.1 per cent respectively in November.

The Labor Department also reported that export prices slipped 0.1 per cent in December, declining for the first time since June, as agricultural prices fell for a second straight month. Export prices rose 0.5 per cent in November.

They increased 2.6 per cent year-on-year after rising 3.1 per cent in November. Export prices gained 2.6 per cent in 2017 after rising 1.3 per cent in 2016. That was also the largest calendar-year increase since 2011.