UPDATE 1-Colombia central bank hikes key rate to ease inflation, current acct worries

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BOGOTA, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Colombia’s central bank raised its benchmark lending rate on Friday to 6.25 percent, the sixth consecutive monthly increase, amid calls for the board to take measures to control the current account deficit and counteract inflationary pressures.

The seven-member board voted by majority to boost the lending rate by 25 basis points, meeting the forecast of analysts in a central bank survey last week.

A weak currency and extremely dry weather has pushed inflation way beyond the bank’s target range of 2-4 percent. Twelve-month January inflation was up to 7.45 percent, its highest level for 17 years.

A drop in global oil prices has also damaged the government’s fiscal accounts, prompting it on Friday to announce cuts to the 2016 budget.

“Higher than expected increases in food prices and additional increases in the exchange rate, related largely to the fall in oil prices, continue to exert upward pressure on inflation,” the bank statement said.

“Inflation expectations remain high and an additional transfer of the peso devaluation on domestic prices is likely.”

The peso has weakened 37.4 percent against the U.S. dollar over the last 12 months.

Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas also revealed some of the new austerity measures aimed at reducing the fiscal deficit to 3.6 percent. The government will cut 6 trillion pesos ($1.8 billion), equivalent to 0.7 percent of gross domestic product, as it grapples with a massive decline in oil revenue, Cardenas, who represents the government on the board, said after the meeting.

“The announced public spending cuts and the firm commitment of the government to present a structural tax reform this year, help to reduce current account deficit and inflationary pressures,” the bank statement said.

There is growing worry over the high current account deficit, which is 6 percent above gross domestic product, according to government estimates. Cardenas has called it unsustainable.

The current account deficit was a factor in Standard & Poor’s decision to lower its credit rating outlook on Colombia to negative this week.

The bank also lowered to 3 percent from 5 percent the moving exchange rate average it uses to auction call options.

In October, the bank announced measures to help moderate “unjustified” exchange rate increases that could de-anchor inflation expectations, as well as add liquidity.

It said then it would auction $500 million in call options if the exchange rate reaches 7 percentage points above the moving average. In December it lowered the average to 5 percent. (Reporting by Bogota newsroom; Editing by Bernard Orr)