US import prices fall for 2nd straight month

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WASHINGTON, (Reuters) - U.S. import prices fell for a second straight month in December as the cost of petroleum products tumbled and a strong dollar curbed prices of other goods, leading to the largest annual drop in more than two years.

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The Labor Department said on Wednesday import prices declined 1.0 percent last month after a downwardly revised 1.9 percent drop in November.

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Economists polled by Reuters had forecast import prices decreasing 1.3 percent in December after a previously reported 1.6 percent decline in November.

In the 12 months through December, import prices fell 0.6 percent. That was the biggest annual drop since September 2016. It was also the first year-on-year decline since October 2016 and followed a 0.5 percent rise in November.

Import prices fell 0.6 percent in 2018, the first calendar year drop since 2015, after increasing 3.2 percent in 2017.

Coming in the wake of data showing declines in headline producer and consumer prices in December, the import prices report strengthens expectations of a pause in interest rate increases from the Federal Reserve in the near term.

Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said last week that low inflation afforded policymakers "the ability to be patient and watch patiently and carefully" while they monitored economic data and financial markets for risks to growth. The U.S. central bank has forecast two interest rate increases this year.

Against the backdrop of low inflation and slowing growth in China and Europe, some economists believe the Fed will not hike interest rates in the first half of 2019. There are signs the U.S. economy slowed at the end of 2018, with consumer and business sentiment surveys weakening sharply in December.

But an ongoing partial shutdown of the federal government, which has delayed the release of data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and Census Bureau is making it hard to get a good read on the economy and could complicate policy decisions.

The government partially shut on Dec. 22 amid demands by President Donald Trump that the U.S. Congress give him $5.7 billion this year to help build a wall on the country's border with Mexico. The longest government shutdown in history has delayed the release of December retail sales and November business inventory data, which were scheduled for Wednesday.

Last month, prices for imported fuels and lubricants fell 9.2 percent after tumbling 13.3 percent in November. Prices for imported petroleum declined 11.6 percent after decreasing 16.0 percent in November.

Imported food prices edged up 0.1 percent in December after dropping 2.2 percent in the prior month. Excluding fuels and food, import prices were unchanged last month after slipping 0.1 percent in November. The so-called core import prices rose 0.6 percent in the 12 months through December.

Core import price readings are likely being held down by the strong dollar, which gained about 7.5 percent last year against the currencies of the United States' main trade partners.

The report also showed export prices fell 0.6 percent in December after declining 0.8 percent in November. A 3.9 percent rise in prices of agricultural exports was offset by a 1.1 percent drop in prices of nonagricultural goods.

Export prices increased 1.1 percent on a year-on-year basis in December after rising 1.8 percent in November. They increased 1.1 percent in 2018.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)