WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. import prices recorded their biggest drop in seven months in March as the cost of petroleum declined, but the underlying trend pointed to a moderate rise in imported inflation as the dollar's rally fades.
The Labor Department said on Wednesday import prices fell 0.2 percent last month, the largest drop since August, after a 0.4 percent increase in February.
That lowered the year-on-year increase in import prices to 4.2 percent from 4.8 percent in February.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast import prices slipping 0.2 percent last month. U.S. financial markets were little moved by the report.
The drop in import prices is unlikely to be sustained with oil prices pushing higher in recent days amid rising geopolitical tensions following last week's U.S. missile strike on Syria and reports that Saudi Arabia wants to extend production cuts enacted in January for another six months.
Despite weak imported price pressures, domestic inflation is rising. Most consumer inflation measures have pushed above the Federal Reserve's 2 percent target. A report on Thursday is expected to show producer prices unchanged in March, but rising 2.4 percent on a year-on-year basis, according to a Reuters survey of economists.
Prices for imported petroleum fell 3.6 percent last month, the biggest drop since August, after increasing 1.3 percent in February. Import prices excluding petroleum increased 0.2 percent after rising 0.3 percent the prior month.
Import prices excluding petroleum have now increased for three straight months, in part reflecting an ebb in the dollar's rally. Prices for imported capital goods edged up 0.1 percent in March after rising 0.2 percent in February.
Imported consumer goods prices excluding automobiles fell 0.2 percent last month after gaining 0.3 percent in February. The cost of imported food fell 0.7 percent last month after increasing 1.0 percent in February.
The report also showed export prices rose 0.2 percent
in March after advancing 0.3 percent the prior month. That lifted the year-on-year increase to 3.6 percent, the biggest rise since December 2011, from a 3.2 percent gain in February.
Prices for agricultural exports increased 0.9 percent last
month, led by gains in meat and nut prices. Agricultural prices rose 5.3 percent in the 12 months to March, the largest increase since June 2013.
Higher soybean prices accounted for the bulk of the year-on-year increase in agricultural export prices in March.
Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci