* Overall rice stocks hit 4-mth low
* Retail prices climb for seventh week
* Stokes speculation govt will issue tender for imports
By Erik dela Cruz
MANILA, March 10 (Reuters) - Overall rice stocks in the Philippines fell to their lowest in four months in February, data showed on Monday, increasing pressure on Manila to import more of the national staple.
The country has been expected to ship in more rice to boost supply as it battles local prices that have risen for seven straight weeks, with speculation rife on the timing and size of any tender.
But the National Food Authority (NFA), the Philippines’ grains procurement agency, said on Monday it had yet to finalise import plans.
Purchases by the Philippines, one of the world’s biggest buyers of the grain, could support falling rice prices elsewhere in Asia, with both Vietnam and Thailand likely to bid aggressively for any new deal.
Inventory in the Philippines fell 5.7 percent to 2.0 million tonnes as of Feb. 1, good for 59 days of national usage, from 2.12 million tonnes at the start of the year, the Bureau of Agricultural Statistics (BAS) said in a report.
The NFA’s stockpile rose 67.1 percent to 460,000 tonnes, however, thanks to the partial delivery of rice purchased in November from Vietnam. But that was good for only 14 days of consumption, below the mandatory 15 day-minimum.
While bumper harvests in other countries have stoked a global rice glut, prices in the Philippines have climbed around 4 percent in the last few months after Typhoon Haiyan devastated key growing regions and as the government clamps down on smugglers looking to avoid hefty taxes.
Stocks in commercial warehouses fell 18.7 percent and those in households dropped 15.6 percent, the data showed.
The average retail price of well-milled rice rose 0.64 percent from a week ago to 40.63 pesos ($0.92) per kilogram as of March 4, BAS said in a separate report.
Vietnam’s official Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper on Monday quoted the Vietnam Food Association as saying the Philippines is gearing up to issue a tender to buy 800,000 tonnes of rice.
But Manila has yet to confirm any purchases beyond 500,000 tonnes it bought from Vietnam in a government-to-government deal in November.
“There is a lot of speculation but we haven’t really finalised anything at the moment,” said Dennis Arpia, a senior executive assistant at the NFA.
“But we have a mandate to boost and maintain a healthy buffer stock.”
The NFA is mandated to maintain a 30-day buffer stock during the lean growing season from July to September, double the level required at other times.
The NFA can buy rice from Vietnam, Thailand or Cambodia - the only three countries with which it has government-to-government supply agreements.
An NFA spokesman last week confirmed media reports that Manila has since late January doubled the amount of rice it has been releasing into markets from stockpiles most days, looking to curb price gains.
Meanwhile, Vietnam, the world’s No. 2 exporter of the grain after India, has lowered its price floor for exports of low-grade rice for the second time in a month to attract buyers amid the global supply glut.
Additional reporting by Ho Binh Minh in Hanoi; Editing by Joseph Radford