UPDATE 3-Russia cbank holds rates, signals steady hand
* Refi rate at 8 pct, 1-day fixed repo rate at 6.25 pct
* Cbank signals no changes to rates in coming months
* Move seen as stability sign 1 mth before president vote
* Analysts say cbank should consider cutting repo rate (Adds central bank comment)
By Andrey Ostroukh and Jason Bush
MOSCOW, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Russia's central bank held interest rates on Friday and signalled a steady hand in the months ahead as it weighs risks to inflation and growth and as the country elects a new president.
Although inflation has hit a post-Soviet low of 4.1 percent on delays to increases in household utilities bills and a stronger rouble, price pressures are expected to kick in from mid-year, making it tough to meet the bank's 6 percent target.
"We shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of security by the good current inflation number," the central bank's first deputy chairman, Alexei Ulyukayev, told a financial conference after the decision to hold rates, which had been expected.
The economy is unlikely to sustain the pace of last year's 4.3 percent expansion, with strong consumption offset by weak manufacturing, and external risks from a possible flare-up in the euro zone debt crisis weighing on policymakers' minds.
"Given current internal and external macroeconomic trends, the level of interest rates ... is considered by the central bank as acceptable for coming months," the central bank said in a statement.
The bank left the fixed one-day repo rate - which has become an effective ceiling for the money market as banks contend with tightening liquidity - at 6.25 percent. The largely symbolic refinancing rate was held at 8 percent.
The one-day deposit rate, a de facto floor for the market when liquidity is abundant, was left at 4 percent.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, front-runner to win the March 4 presidential election, has sought to boost the feelgood factor among Russian voters by delaying annual increases in their electricity and gas bills.489
But the increases will take effect from mid-year, making it tough for policymakers in calibrating policy at a time of heightened domestic political uncertainty and potential risks that the euro zone crisis could escalate again.
Although Putin faces no credible rival, his is under pressure from opposition protests demanding electoral reforms and a cleanup of corruption in the Russian government. The next big demo will be held on Saturday.
"You have a definitely positive inflation trend, but this is related to the pre-election period and may reverse after the elections - so this is definitely not a reason to cut interest rates," said Natalia Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank.
The rouble showed no immediate reaction to the central bank's decision, which had been widely priced in by the market.
EASING IN THE PIPELINE?
The bank's first deputy chairman, Alexei Ulyukayev, told Reuters in the past week that current rates were appropriate, as was the interest rate corridor of 225 basis points that the central bank uses to guide its policy.
The central bank narrowed that corridor in 2011 as part of its medium-term shift towards targeting inflation and reducing the scale of its market interventions to manage the exchange rate.
Economic growth is expected to slow to 3.5 percent this year from 4.3 percent in 2011, according to a Reuters poll, and economists now suggest the central bank should consider cutting repo rates to avoid a liquidity crunch and support lending, one of the main drivers of internal demand.
"This shift in the balance is premature. Global risks are still aplenty and domestic political concerns, despite having somewhat faded away, remain prominent," commented Ivan Tchakarov, chief economist at Renaissance Capital.
The central bank effectively eased policy last September, in response to a deepening of the euro zone crisis that caused a heavy sell-off on global financial markets, by cutting its one-day repo rate.
But, in response to accelerating capital outflows that were exacerbated by protests over the parliamentary election in December, the central bank effectively conducted a 'stealth' tightening at the end of 2011.
Although it held its one-day repo rate at 5.25 percent on Dec. 23, it restricted funds available at that rate, forcing banks to borrow more expensively at the fixed-rate repo window.
A Reuters poll of 21 economists this week forecast the central bank would cut the one-day fixed repo rate to 6.00 percent by the end of the first quarter, while a deeper cut would pose risks to an ambitious target to hit the 6 percent inflation target this year.
"From the middle of this year inflation will pick up because of a low base effect resulting from last year's good harvest, and because of tariff hikes. So loosening policy substantially here would not be the best thing to do," said Alexandra Evtifyeva, an analyst at VTB Capital.
The next interest rate meeting is scheduled for the first half of March, the central bank said. (Editing by Douglas Busvine and Susan Fenton)
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