UPDATE 2-Russia c.bank holds rates, sounds hawkish on inflation
* C.bank keeps all interest rates on hold
* Does not comment on whether rates acceptable for near future
* Warns that inflation above target is risk to expectations (Adds, context, analysts' comments)
By Jason Bush
MOSCOW, Jan 15 (Reuters) - Russia's central bank left monetary policy unchanged on Tuesday and sounded a relatively hawkish note on inflation again, muddying the waters over the direction of its next interest rate move.
In a notable contrast with last month, the bank made no mention of whether it sees money market rates as "acceptable for the near future" - a formulation that had been seen as meaning rates would stay on hold for a while.
"Judging by the statement, you can't unambiguously conclude that rates will be lowered," said Vladimir Osakovsky, chief Russia economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
"It isn't dovish enough to support expectations of a rate cut. There's nothing (in the statement) that would contradict a rate hike."
Analysts polled by Reuters last month had expected the bank to begin cutting rates in the second quarter in response to a stabilisation of inflation and an economic slowdown.
But the central bank emphasised inflationary risks again in its statement while sounding fairly relaxed about signs that the economy is slowing, suggesting at the very least that it is in no rush to cut rates.
"The toughening of the central bank's rhetoric... confirms our expectation that the Bank of Russia will begin an easing rate cycle only after a turnaround in the inflation dynamic: that is, no earlier than the second quarter," said Vladimir Tsibanov, economist at Rosbank.
Alexander Morozov, chief Russia economist at HSBC, predicted that the bank wouldn't begin cutting rates until the second half of the year, calling the market's expectation of a second-quarter rate cut "very premature."
"Until annual inflation slows to within the 5-6 percent target range the central bank probably won't be ready to lower rates," he said.
For now, the central bank is pursuing a wait-and-see strategy, leaving its main lending rates on hold for the fourth month in a row.
It held the fixed one-day repo rate, a ceiling for the money market, at 6.5 percent, with the auction repo rate also unchanged at 5.5 percent. The refinancing rate, the cost of overnight loans from the central bank, was kept at 8.25 percent.
The overnight deposit rate, a floor for interbank rates, was left at 4.5 percent. Last month the central bank hiked this rate by 25 basis points to reduce money market volatility.
The rouble strengthened fractionally following the central bank announcement, gaining some 0.1 percent against the euro-dollar basket to 34.76.
The central bank's ambiguous position is understandable given mixed news on inflation - increasingly its central policy benchmark as it gradually introduces a formal inflation-targeting regime.
On the one hand, underlying inflationary pressures in the economy are abating, with core inflation falling to 5.7 percent in December.
On the other hand, the main headline number for inflation, annual consumer price inflation, remains well outside the central bank's target range - and continues to rise.
This headline rate was at 6.8 percent on Jan. 9, up from 6.6 percent in December and above the central bank's target range for this year of 5-6 percent.
True, headline inflation is spiking upwards largely because of one-off price increases at the start of the year, such as annual increases in transport fares and excise duties.
However, the central bank is still concerned that high headline inflation could translate into higher underlying inflation, implying no room for complacency.
"The inflation rate staying above the target range for a prolonged period of time may affect economic agents' expectations and thus poses inflation risks, despite the absence of any significant demand-pull price pressures," the bank said.
In contrast, its comments on economic growth were relatively relaxed - belying some analysts' expectations that the central bank may begin paving the way this month for future interest rate cuts to boost the slowing economy.
The bank said economic activity is gradually cooling, but indicators of business sentiment remain positive and the labour market tight. As previously, it saw little risk of a substantial slowdown in economic growth caused by tight monetary conditions.
Its overall tone has left economists guessing over its probable next move.
"The big question is what does the abolishment of policy guidance mean for the policy outlook," wrote ING economist Dmitry Polevoy in a note.
"We think it has been mostly done to get extra flexibility... We would still not treat this as an indication of a stronger bias either to tightening or to easing at this stage." (Writing by Jason Bush, additional reporting by Elena Fabrichnaya, Oksana Kobzeva and Maya Dyakina; Editing by Hugh Lawson)