Russian food inflation drives concern over grain curbs
* Russian CPI above target, food prices lead
* Global wheat price rally could force action
* Exports continue, grain reserves depleted
* Govt may slow intervention sales or allow imports
By Polina Devitt and Darya Korsunskaya
MOSCOW, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Spiking grain prices are forcing up the cost of food for Russians and are set to rise further by spring, when one of the world's largest wheat exporters will face a supply deficit, senior officials, analysts and traders say.
Russia's exportable grain surplus is largely depleted - with a further rise in global wheat prices possibly requiring steps to husband scant grain reserves or even allow imports, sending bullish signals that could feed through into still-higher prices for household staples.
"Food inflation is the main risk," Russian Deputy Economy Minister Andrei Klepach told Reuters.
"Now, there is no need to impose (export) restrictions, but there are risks that prices for grain, bread and flour products will continue to rise."
As in many middle-income countries, food makes up a larger share of the outlays of Russians than in richer nations, accounting for more than 37 percent of the official consumer price index (CPI).
Food-price inflation resulting from this year's poor harvest has driven overall cost-of-living increases above the central bank's target level of 6 percent, pushing it to raise interest rates in September.
Headline inflation fell slightly in October, to 6.5 percent, leading the central bank to abstain from a further interest rate hike and declare that, as rises in food prices moderate, so will Russians' inflation expectations.
The new Russian government, appointed by Russian leader Vladimir Putin after his return to the Kremlin in May for a third presidential term, has a pro-market bias and has repeatedly ruled out grain export curbs.
Yet memories are fresh of the ban Putin slapped on grain exports after the failed harvest of 2010, a supply shock that propelled food-price inflation in Russia to a peak of more than 14 percent in January 2011.
For his part this year Putin, despite expressing concern about price pressures, has said the situation in Russia is less severe than in 2010, when drought slashed the grain crop to 61 million tonnes.
Russia is expected to harvest 71.7 million tonnes of grain this year. Of that, wheat is forecast to total 40 million tonnes or less - actually lower than in the crisis year of 2010.
This year's drought has led Russia to deplete its grain export potential of 10 million tonnes quickly, sending domestic wheat prices to record levels of around $320 per tonne.
"It is impossible to buy grain for a normal-sized export lot in Russia now," one large grain trader said, adding that market stocks will be exhausted by December.
Russia has already exported 11 million tonnes of grain since the start of the 2012/13 marketing year on July 1, including 8.5 million tonnes of wheat.
If grain exports reach 12 million tonnes as expected, carryover stocks that totalled 15 million tonnes in the summer are likely to drop to a low level of around 7 million tonnes, of which almost 4 million tonnes would be intervention stocks.
The government is trying to cool domestic prices by selling up to 1.25 million tonnes of grain this year from its 5-million-tonne stocks. It is considering keeping the rest for the spring to cover a possible grain deficit.
Despite tight balances, Russian exports remain competitive thanks to high global prices, which rose to a 4-1/2 year high in Paris last week and were traded slightly lower this week - at 270.00 euros ($340) a tonne by 1253 GMT on Wednesday.
"Exports have slowed down thanks to high domestic prices, among other things. If global prices do not rise - while they have already started to increase - in that case, there is no need to impose limits," Klepach said.
The trader added that if grain exports do persist into the New Year, the Russian government will face challenges meeting domestic needs.
Slowing down intervention sales to preserve stocks would push up domestic prices, while bowing to calls from Russian flour millers to allow imports would also send a bullish signal to the global market.
Either way, the view of the central bank and economists that food price inflation will slow and headline inflation peak at around 7 percent before falling back may be tested in the coming months.
"Any decision (by the government) will mean that domestic grain prices will rise, because wheat in Kazakhstan is expensive, plus, as soon as global market will see that Russia need import, global prices will rise," the trader added.