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UPDATE 1-U.S. import prices up slightly; underlying imported inflation weak

Lucia Mutikani

(Adds details from report)

WASHINGTON, May 14 (Reuters) - U.S. import prices rose less than expected in April as increases in the cost of petroleum and food were tempered by the largest decrease in the price of capital goods in 10 years, suggesting inflation could remain tame for a while.

The report from the Labor Department on Tuesday came on the heels of data last week that showed moderate producer and consumer price increases in April, which underscored the Federal Reserve's projection of no further interest rate increases this year. Economists say inflation is also not too low for the U.S. central bank to cut rates this year.

The Fed early this month kept rates unchanged and signaled little inclination to adjust monetary policy anytime soon. Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said he believed the weak inflation readings "may wind up being transient."

Import prices increased 0.2% last month after an unrevised 0.6% increase in March. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast import prices would climb 0.7% in April.

In the 12 months through April, import prices fell 0.2% after edging up 0.1% in March.

Prices of U.S. Treasuries edged higher after the release of the data. U.S. stock index futures were trading higher and the dollar was stronger against a basket of currencies.

EYES ON TARIFFS

Inflation could get a boost from last week's move by President Donald Trump to raise tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese goods to 25% from 10%. Economists estimate the latest duties could add as much as two-tenths of a percentage point to inflation.

In April, prices for imported fuels and lubricants rose 2.5% after surging 6.9% percent in the prior month. Prices for imported petroleum jumped 6.1% percent after rising 5.3% in March. Imported food prices rebounded 2.8% last month, the largest increase since July 2016, after falling 0.2% in March.

The cost of imported capital goods dropped 0.4% last month, the biggest fall since March 2009. Prices for imported consumer goods excluding automobiles decreased 0.3% in April, after declining by the same margin in March.

Excluding fuels and food, import prices dropped 0.3% in April after falling 0.2% in the prior month. The so-called core import prices decreased 1.1% in the 12 months through April.

Though the dollar has weakened a bit this year, its gains last year against the currencies of the United States' main trading partners continue to depress core import prices.

Chinese import prices fell 0.2% last month after being unchanged in March. They dropped 1.1% on a year-on-year basis, the largest decline since May 2017. The cost of goods imported from Japan slipped 0.1% percent. Prices of Canadian imports, however, surged 1.3 percent, driven by higher fuel prices.

The report also showed export prices rose 0.2% in April after increasing 0.6% in March. A 1.5% decrease in prices of agricultural exports was offset by a 0.4% rise in prices of nonagricultural goods. Agricultural export prices were weighed down by a 17.2% plunge in vegetable prices.

Export prices rose 0.3% on a year-on-year basis in April after increasing 0.6% in March. (Reporting by Lucia Mutikani Editing by Paul Simao)