By Lucia Mutikani
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Import prices rose in February on sharply higher oil costs, but there were few other signs of imported inflation pressure and food prices posted their largest decline in three years.
Import prices rose 0.4 percent after a downwardly revised flat reading in January, the Labor Department said. Prices in January were previously reported as having risen 0.3 percent.
Outside petroleum, import prices fell 0.2 percent last month, pointing to a lack of inflation pressure elsewhere.
"We are going to see higher inflation because of the higher gasoline and oil prices, but overall, if you look at the underlying core inflation, it should remain relatively subdued," said Gregory Daco, a U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight in Lexington, Massachusetts.
Compared to February last year, import prices were up 5.5 percent - the smallest gain since December 2010 and down from a 6.9 percent increase in the 12 months through January.
The report came a day after the Federal Reserve said the recent steep run-up in oil and gasoline prices would push inflation up only temporarily.
But some economists do not share the Fed's contention. They worry the central bank's easy monetary policy stance is a recipe for inflation above the Fed's 2 percent target.
Consumer prices were up 2.7 percent year-on-year in January, according to the Fed's favored gauge.
"The year-over-year inflation rate on import prices is likely to moderate further in the early spring and some Fed officials may see these data as providing evidence of easing inflation pressures," said John Ryding, chief economist at RDQ Economics in New York.
"For our part, we do not expect that inflation will slow to the Fed's forecast for 2012 and we remain concerned about the medium-term inflation outlook given the highly accommodative stance of monetary policy."
Data on Thursday is expected to show that energy pushed up producer prices a relatively steep 0.5 percent last month, according to a Reuters survey, while the consumer price index on Friday is expected to advance 0.4 percent.
Graphic-mortgages applications: http://link.reuters.com/wah44s
Graphic-import, export prices: http://link.reuters.com/cyb27s
TABLE-Feb import prices rise 0.
PETROLEUM PRICES SOAR
Last month, imported petroleum prices jumped 1.8 percent after gaining 0.3 percent in January. Imported food prices fell 3.0 percent in February - the biggest decline since February 2009 - reversing January's 2.3 percent increase.
The Labor Department also said export prices rose 0.4 percent last month, the largest increase in five months.
A separate report from the Commerce Department showed the U.S. current account deficit widened to 3.24 percent of gross domestic product in the fourth quarter from 2.84 percent in the prior three months.
The deterioration in the current account - the broadest measure of U.S. trade - reflected rising imports, falling exports and a lower surplus of investment income as payments of interest, dividends and profits on U.S.-owned assets abroad increased. Corresponding receipts on foreign-owned assets in the United States fell during the quarter.
Daco of IHS Global Insight said the United States' income surplus was set to erode over time given the need to finance the hefty U.S. deficits in trade and the federal budget.
He said, at the same time, the deficit in goods and services trade was set to widen.
"Domestic activity will gradually accelerate and pull in more imports from abroad, while higher oil prices raise the oil import bill. In the meantime, a depressed European economy and weaker emerging markets growth will weigh down on exports," he said.
A third report showed demand for U.S. home purchases rose for the third week in a row last week, though applications for refinancing sagged and pulled a gauge of overall mortgage finance activity lower.
Economists are hopeful the housing sector will no longer drag on the economy this year, although sales and construction activity remain at depressed levels.
(Additional reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Neil Stempleman)