March 18, 2019 / 6:30 AM / 3 months ago

POLL-Thai seen holding key rate on Wed as growth slows, risks rise

* reuters://realtime/verb=Open/url=cpurl://apps.cp./Apps/cb-polls?RIC=THCBIR%3DECI poll data

* All 19 analysts see policy rate steady at 1.75 pct

* December rate hike was first since 2011

* Decision due on Wednesday at around 0700 GMT

By Orathai Sriring

BANGKOK, March 18 (Reuters) - Thailand’s central bank is expected to keep its benchmark policy rate steady on Wednesday for a second straight review after a hike in December, a Reuters poll showed, in a bid to support a slowing economy while inflation remained low.

All 19 economists surveyed by Reuters predicted the Bank of Thailand (BOT)’s monetary policy committee (MPC) will keep its one-day repurchase rate at 1.75 percent.

The rate was at near record lows when it was raised by 25 basis points in December, the first hike since 2011, in a bid to reduce risks to financial stability.

The MPC kept the rate on hold last month, saying an accommodative policy would remain appropriate in the period ahead and any policy rate increase would be gradual and data-dependent..

“We expect the BOT to stay on hold as growth and inflation are slow. It will likely revise down its 2019 growth forecast,” said Charnon Boonnuch, a Nomura economist in Singapore who expected growth of 3.4 percent this year.

Annual headline inflation was 0.73 percent in February, staying below the central bank’s 1-4 percent target range for four straight months..

Governor Veerathai Santiprabhob said last month Southeast Asia’s second-largest economy was expected to slow in the current quarter due to increased global risks, but it was still on track to hit the full-year forecast of 4.0 percent. New estimates are expected on Wednesday.

The economy expanded 4.1 percent last year, the fastest pace in six years.

The economy relies heavily on external demand and exports have softened amid rising global trade tensions, while the baht is the best performing currency in Asia this year.

Political uncertainty also poses risks to the economy as Thailand prepares to hold a general election on March 24, the first since a 2014 military coup.

“Whoever wins, the shift towards economic populism is likely to continue, delaying reforms needed to raise productivity growth and deal with the worsening demographic outlook,” Capital Economics said.

However, there is a risk of civil unrest if voters feel they were denied a free and fair election, it said.

“Another outbreak of protests and violent conflict, similar to those observed in 2010 and 2014, would deal a significant blow to the economy,” the consultancy said.

Nine of 14 analysts who gave a medium-term view said they did not foresee a rate change until the fourth quarter, while five analysts expected the bank to move sooner.

Bank of Ayudhya economist Sarun Sunansathaporn expected a rate rise in June to curb risks to financial stability and create policy space if first quarter growth momentum carried on.

Standard Chartered economist Tim Leelahaphan predicted two rate hikes of 25 basis points each in the second and fourth quarter, citing financial stability risks and strong domestic demand.

Singapore-based ING economist Prakash Sakpal saw no change in policy this year, but “the balance of risks remained tilted toward growth, warranting an increase in policy accommodation”.

Additional reporting by Satawasin Staporncharnchai in BANGKOK and Khushboo Mittal in BENGALURU Editing by Darren Schuettler

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