* Risk-off mood, poor economic data hurt rand
* Forward rate agreements project hike in 2018
* Economists see benchmark rate kept at 6.5 percent
* CPI contained within 3-6 percent target range
By Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo
JOHANNESBURG, June 25 (Reuters) - South African markets are pricing in the possibility of an interest rate hike this year as the rand falls, even though economists say this is unlikely as inflation expectations have not breached the upper end of the central bank’s target range.
South Africa’s rand has slumped nearly 9 percent against the dollar year to date, hurt by global risk-off sentiment and poor domestic economic data. It fell to a 7-month low last week.
Capital Economics senior emerging markets economist John Ashbourne said the currency fall has raised speculation that South African policymakers would follow some emerging market countries that have started raising interest rates.
Some have moved as a pick-up in their economy or other factors push up inflation, while others are being forced to act to steady their currencies.
South Africa’s forward rate agreements are implying a 25 basis-point hike in interest rates by the end of the year.
But a Reuters poll found last week that economists expect the South African Reserve Bank to keep its repo rate unchanged at 6.5 percent until 2020.
“We think that markets are getting ahead of themselves by pricing in rate hikes in South Africa... We do not think that this is likely,” Ashbourne said in a note.
“Policymakers have explicitly said that they will not react to currency moves until they see a lasting effect on domestic inflation. And the pass-through between currency moves and inflation is weaker in South Africa than in many other EMs.”
The central bank said in May it would maintain its vigilance to ensure inflation remained within the 3 to 6 percent target range, and would adjust the policy stance should the need arise.
The bank currently forecast CPI to average 5.1 percent in fourth quarter 2018, and 5.2 percent in the last quarters of 2019 and 2020. The next interest rates decision and inflation forecasts are due on July 19.
South Africa’s consumer price inflation slowed to 4.4 percent year-on-year in May as the rise in food prices eased.
“A weaker currency makes (the central bank) more fearful but it depends on how it impacts inflation twelve months out,” Citi economist Gina Schoeman said.
“We don’t think we will see rate hikes in 2018. It doesn’t mean there is no risk of it, and the market is correct to price for that.”
Schoeman said rate hikes over the past five years happened when the inflation forecast for twelve months out had breached 6 percent and stayed above that for two or three quarters.
“So it has to not only breach 6 percent, it has to also breach it for a sustainable amount of time. If it is not doing that, then we don’t have a risk of interest rate hikes,” she said.
Mexico’s central bank raised its benchmark interest on Thursday in a bid to counteract the effects of a peso slump and keep a downward inflation trend on track.
Argentina, Turkey, India and Indonesia are among the other countries hiking rates. (Editing by James Macharia and Toby Chopra)