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Oranjestad, August 17, 2012 - Prices of goods imported into the U.S. unexpectedly fell in July for a fourth consecutive month, reflecting lower costs for fuel and food.

The 0.6 percent drop in the import-price index followed a 2.4 percent decline in June, the Labor Department reported today in Washington. Economists projected the July gauge would rise 0.2 percent, according to the median forecast in a Bloomberg survey. Costs excluding fuel decreased 0.4 percent, the biggest decline in two years.

American companies and consumers may continue to see limited cost pressures abroad as the slowing global economy reduces demand for raw materials. A stronger dollar also affords U.S. businesses the room to hold the line on prices, allowing the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates near zero.

“I don’t think there’s much underlying, non-petroleum price inflation,” Steven Ricchiuto, chief economist at Mizuho Securities USA Inc. in New York, said before today’s report. “With the global slowdown, you’re going to see some discounting of product.” Ricchiuto predicted a 0.2 percent decline in import prices.

Projections for July import prices ranged from a decrease of 1 percent to an increase of 1.8 percent, according to the Bloomberg survey of 44 economists.

The import-price index is the first of three monthly price gauges from the Labor Department. Producer prices are due Aug. 14, and the consumer-price index on the following day.

Fuel Costs

The cost of imported petroleum products decreased 1.6 percent in July from the prior month and was down 12 percent from a year earlier, the biggest 12-month decrease since September 2009.

Imported food and beverages were 1.2 percent less expensive last month, today’s report showed. The decrease in the cost of food from overseas may help to offset building pressures in the U.S., where a drought in the Midwest has started to affect some food prices, driving up corn and limiting the cost of beef.

Stronger Dollar

At the same time, the dollar has increased in value since the end of January as concerns about Europe’s debt crisis drove investors to the safety of the greenback, making foreign goods cheaper. It has climbed 2.2 percent since Jan. 31 through yesterday against a trade-weighted basket of currencies from its biggest trading partners, according to Fed data.