U.S. import price data for January indicates a rise of 1.4% from December and a 11.5% rise year over year. The price rise in January was the sixth one in a row. Higher energy prices were the major cause of both the monthly and yearly increases. The implications are inflationary.
Prices for imported oil were up 4.8% in January (the U.S. imports approximately two-thirds of its oil). Non-fuel imports were up 0.4%, led by a 1.5% price increase in industrial materials. Metals and chemicals were responsible for most of that rise. The price for foods, feeds and beverages were up 1.3%. The report clearly indicated that commodities were responsible for almost all of the rise in U.S. import prices in January. Since all commodities are priced in U.S. dollars and the dollar rallied 0.7% during the month, the jump in import prices could have been worse - and will be if the dollar continues selling off as it did for most of 2009.
There was indeed a stark contrast between price changes for commodities and manufactured goods in January's report. Consumer goods were up only 0.2%, while capital goods and automotive vehicles decreased by 0.1%. Inflation has yet to filter into manufactured goods, which are at the end of the chain for price increases. Commodities are at the beginning. The report also indicated significant drops in air fare and air freight prices, both of which will reverse if oil prices stay high.
Over the last year there has been a dramatic change in the inflation picture based on import prices. Year over year price changes were negative and dropped each month from January to July 2009. Yearly prices decreased 12.5% in January and were down 19.1% in July. Since then, a major reversal from deflation to inflation has taken place. In November the yearly import price change became positive and was up 3.4%. It increased to 8.6% in December. In only six months from July 2009 to January 2010, the yearly change in U.S. import prices went from -19.1% to +11.5%. These are truly shocking figures.
In the last month, central banks have indicated they are starting to worry about inflation - China increased required bank reserves twice, the U.S. Fed halted five Credit Crisis liquidity programs and the Bank of England paused its quantitative easing (read money printing) program. All in all though these actions are merely very minor adjustments in monetary policies that are still highly expansionary. Inflation takes years to work its way through the financial system and by the time it is recognized, it is well-entrenched and it is too late to stop it without taking drastic action. Investors should consider the U.S. import price figures as a warning of things to come.