US import prices rose more than expected in February as fuel prices surge

A container ship arrives at Yusen Terminals on Terminal Island at the Port of Los Angeles, January 30, 2019.
Mike Blake | Reuters

Import prices rose 0.6 percent in February, boosted by increases in the costs of fuels and consumer goods, the Labor Department said on Thursday.  That was the biggest gain since May and followed an upwardly revised 0.1 percent rise in January.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast import prices rising 0.3 percent in February after a previously reported 0.5 percent drop in January.

In the 12 months through February, import prices fell 1.3 percent. That followed a 1.6 percent decline in January.

The report came on the heels of data showing tame producer and consumer inflation readings in February. The jump in the monthly import prices probably does not change economists' expectations that inflation will remain moderate through the first half of 2019, and allow the Fed to stay pat on interest rates. The U.S. central bank raised rates four times last year

Last month, prices for imported fuels and lubricants rose 4.9 percent after increasing 4.1 percent in January. Prices for imported petroleum increased 4.7 percent after rebounding 7.1 percent in January.

But food prices fell 0.8 percent in February after decreasing 0.4 percent in the prior month. Excluding fuels and food, import prices rebounded 0.2 percent last month after falling 0.3 percent in January.

The so-called core import prices fell 0.3 percent in the 12 months through February. Increases in core import prices have been curbed by last year's strength in the dollar. Prices for imported consumer goods excluding automobiles rose 0.3 percent in February, reversing January's drop.

The cost of goods imported from China were unchanged in February after dropping 0.3 percent in the prior month. Prices of Chinese imports dropped 0.7 percent in the 12-months through February, the biggest decline since October 2017.

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Key Points
  • The number of Americans filing applications for unemployment benefits increased more than expected last week.
  • The data suggested the labor market was slowing, but probably not to the extent implied by a near-stall in job growth in February.
  • Initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose to 229,000 for the week ended March 9, the Labor Department said.