U.S. Import Prices Rose in January; Ex-Oil Up 0.4%

Prices of goods imported into the U.S. rose in January as the global economic recovery boosted costs for fuel, food and metals, a government report showed.

The import price index increased 1.4 percent in January, more than economists forecast, compared with a revised 0.2 percent gain the prior month that was higher than previously estimated, Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. Prices excluding petroleum rose 0.4 percent last month and were up 1.3 percent from a year earlier.

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Global growth is pushing up demand and raising prices for some commodities. Still, any price gains aren’t yet passed on to consumers, enabling the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates near zero and allow the recovery to strengthen.

“Certainly commodity prices have bounced up, and that reflects a rebound in industrial production around the world,” said Jay Bryson, global economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina. “But is this a big inflationary problem? I wouldn’t go that far.”

Economists forecast the import-price index would rise 1 percent in January, according to the median of 53 projections in a Bloomberg News survey, after no change initially reported for December. Estimates for January ranged from unchanged to a gain of 1.8 percent.

Housing Starts

A Commerce Department report today showed housing starts in the U.S. rose in January to a higher level than anticipated. Work began on 591,000 houses at an annual rate last month, up 2.8 percent from December, the report showed. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg predicted a pace of 580,000.

The import-price index is the first of three monthly price gauges from the Labor Department. The index of producer prices is scheduled to be released tomorrow and that of consumer prices is due Feb. 19.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke reiterated last week that the central bank expects economic conditions, including “subdued inflation trends,” may warrant an “exceptionally low” benchmark interest rate “for an extended period.”

Compared with a year earlier, prices of import goods accelerated 11.5 percent, today’s report showed. It was forecast to have risen 10.8 percent last month after advancing 8.6 percent in December.

Energy Costs

Petroleum costs were lower in January 2009 and subsequent months than they were last month, which tends to boost year- over-year comparisons for inflation indicators.

The cost of imported petroleum and petroleum products rose 4.8 percent in January compared with December.

The pressure on costs from crude producers has passed and a surge in oil prices may lead to shortages in drilling services, Schlumberger Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Andrew Gould said in an interview Feb. 4.

Talks with producers to cut prices “are behind us,” Gould said. “The whole industry worked very hard in 2009 to bring down costs and they’ve been reasonably successful. The danger is that if oil prices accelerate then in the supply industry, certain shortages will appear quite quickly.”

A weaker U.S. dollar relative to trading partners’ currencies has helped boost prices of imported goods. The Dollar Index, a gauge of its strength against six other major currencies, dropped 4.2 percent last year.

Metals

Prices of imported industrial supplies excluding petroleum increased 2.6 percent, the same as the prior month. Prices for unfinished metals related to durable goods increased 2.5 percent last month.

Prices of imported food rose 1.3 percent in January, compared with a 0.8 percent gain in December. They were 2.3 percent higher than a year earlier.

Prices of imported automobiles, parts and engines fell 0.1 percent, the same drop as a month earlier. Costs for imported consumer goods excluding autos increased 0.2 percent last month after no change in December.

The cost of goods from China fell 0.3 percent, the biggest drop since April, the report showed. Imports from Japan were unchanged last month, while those from Latin America were up 2.1 percent.

U.S. export prices increased 0.8 percent after rising 0.6 percent in December. Prices of farm exports rose 1.4 percent, while those of non-farm goods increased 0.7 percent last month.

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