* Annual inflation rate 3.76 percent -statistics agency
* Drop in mobile phone charges helps contain prices
* Jobless rate rises to highest since March
MEXICO CITY, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Mexican inflation eased more than expected in early December as consumer prices cool from a recent spike, and a drop below the central bank’s upper limit backs expectations that interest rates will remain steady next year.
Mexico’s annual inflation rate eased to 3.76 percent in the 12 months through the first half of December, the national statistics agency said on Friday, down from 4.18 percent in November. A Reuters poll saw a 3.96 percent rate.
A surge in food costs drove Mexican inflation to a 2-1/2 year high in September, but costs have moderated since then. The inflation rate in early December fell below the central bank’s 4 percent limit for the first time since May.
Policymakers are watching slowing growth in Latin America’s No. 2 economy and another report on Friday showed Mexico’s unemployment rate rose more than expected in November.
Marco Oviedo, an analyst at Barclays Capital, said the data for early December suggested that the annual inflation rate would likely cool to 3.6 percent by the end of the year.
“This should leave (the central bank) very comfortable in maintaining interest rates flat,” he wrote in a note.
Analysts noted easing inflation pressures would give policymakers room to lower borrowing costs if the economic slowdown worsens.
Banco de Mexico, which has kept its benchmark interest rate on hold at 4.5 percent since mid-2009, has backed away from a warning in early November that it could raise borrowing costs if inflation failed to decline.
Yields on Mexican interest rate swaps edged down after the data as investors added to bets that policymakers will not raise borrowing costs until early 2014.
A drop in mobile telephone rates had the most impact in curbing price gains in early December, the statistics agency said in a report.
Consumer prices rose 0.27 percent in the first half of December, below the 0.79 percent notched in the first half of November, and compared to an expected 0.46 percent.
Core inflation, which strips out volatile goods like energy and food, rose 0.26 percent, above the 0.18 percent in early November and compared to an expected 0.34 percent.
Another report from the statistics agency showed Mexico’s jobless rate rose for the second month in a row in November to its highest since March.
The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose to 5.13 percent in November, the national statistics agency said, compared to a 4.83 percent rate in the previous month. A Reuters poll expected a 4.83 percent rate.
Unemployment has fallen from near 6 percent seen during a deep recession in 2009 to its lowest level in nearly four years in September. However, the renewed rise in the jobless rate curbs pressure on inflation from the tighter labor market.
Mexico’s economy is expected to grow 3.9 percent in 2012 and slow next year to 3.5 percent.
The headline unadjusted jobless rate was 5.12 percent compared to a 5.04 percent in October and a 4.84 percent expected in the poll.