BOGOTA, March 20 (Reuters) - Colombia’s central bank will likely maintain its benchmark interest rate for a seventh consecutive month on Friday, as economic growth begins to ease and inflation picks up pace.
The seven-member board will keep the rate at 4.5 percent, a majority of analysts said in a Reuters poll this week. Last month, policymakers voted unanimously to hold borrowing costs.
The meeting comes as growth expectations for Latin America’s fourth-largest economy are curbed by falling oil revenue and an increase in inflation, driven in part by a truckers strike which drove up food prices.
“Right now we prefer to maintain a stable outlook on monetary policy, assuming that the bank’s rhetoric will be enough to contain inflation expectations,” said Daniel Escobar, chief economic analyst at Global Securities.
The economy expanded 4.6 percent in 2014, among the fastest growing in Latin America and a hair below the government’s forecast.
Still, the 3.5 percent growth in the fourth quarter was markedly lower than the 4 percent expected by analysts and well below the 6.1 percent expansion of a year earlier.
Inflation, already on the rise due to a 30 percent weakening in the peso, was pushed higher by an almost three-week trucker strike that caused a scarcity of some foodstuffs, spurring price hikes, before it was called off on Thursday.
“Inflation has begun to climb on the back of rising food prices and the first signs of an exchange rate pass-through effect on consumer prices,” Citibank said in a note to investors, adding that the central bank should keep rates unchanged.
The peso has fallen 30 percent over 12 months versus the dollar, one of the sharpest currency weakenings in the region. The peso closed on Thursday at 2,630 to the dollar.
Twelve-month inflation hit 4.36 percent in February, topping the central bank’s target range of 2 to 4 percent.
Consumer prices will fall in the second half of the year, to near the 3 percent mid-point of the central bank’s target, board member Juan Pablo Zarate said last week, adding it would be good for the economy if stable monetary policy is maintained.
Two-thirds of those polled in the Reuters survey said the rate decision will be unanimous, while the remainder predicted a decision taken by majority. A non-unanimous vote could signal a coming shift away from holding the rate.
Finance Minister Mauricio Cardenas said this week he saw the 4.5 percent interest rate as ideal under current conditions. (Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb)