* Yearly inflation falls to 7.0 pct in March
* Fall in inflation rate strengthens case for rate cut
* Monetary easing seen this quarter (Adds detail, comment)
MOSCOW, April 4 (Reuters) - Russia’s monthly consumer price increase halved in March from February and inflation eased in annual terms, supporting calls for a monetary easing that could aid economic growth.
Headline year-on-year inflation eased to 7.0 percent in March from 7.3 percent a month earlier, while month-on-month consumer prices rose 0.3 percent - half the February pace - data from the Federal Statistics Service showed on Thursday.
The unexpectedly favourable outcome increases pressure on the central bank to cut start cutting key interest rates. Lowering rates, some government officials argue, would support lending to the industrial sector and boost growth.
The Russian economy grew at its slowest quarterly pace in three years in the fourth quarter of 2012, at 2.1 percent, with data suggesting the economy may have grown by just 1 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to London consultancy Capital Economics.
Inflation seemingly has already passed its peak, with data showing that food price shocks are subsiding. Central bank officials have repeatedly said that inflation needs to fall before the bank can contemplate cutting key rates.
Central Bank Chairman Sergei Ignatyev said on Wednesday that there was still no clear downward trend in inflation, but added that today’s figure for March would provide a clearer indicator of inflation trends..
The central bank, now in transition in its policy focus to inflation targeting from controlling the rouble’s exchange rate, may nonetheless wait until the headline figure falls into its 5-6 percent target for 2013 before cutting interest rates.
“We continue to expect no policy changes until inflation approaches the target,” analysts at Barclays wrote in a research note earlier this week.
On Monday, the central bank kept key policy rates unchanged, cutting only long-term rates, but in the accompanying statement it adopted a more dovish tone, warning of risks to the growth outlook.
Analysts polled by Reuters at the end of March expected the central bank to start cutting rates in the second quarter.
In comments on Thursday, Sergei Shvetsov, a deputy chairman at the central bank said he expected inflation to fall within the central bank’s target range in the second half of the year, possibly in the fourth quarter. (Reporting by Maya Dyakina and Lidia Kelly; Editing by Douglas Busvine)