By Aileen Wang and Nick Edwards
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's inflation rate eased to a 15-month low in December, though sticky food prices are a reminder of the risks the government is weighing as it tilts policy towards boosting growth as internal and external demand for Chinese goods falters.
Consumer price inflation of 4.1 percent, just ahead of market expectations of 4.0 percent, extended an easing trend of the last five months to reinforce the view of many that the central bank is poised to ease monetary policy.
The annual rate of producer price inflation, at 1.7 percent, came in just below forecasts of 1.8 percent, underscoring the potential for downside surprises for corporate China as a deteriorating global backdrop knocks demand for goods from the factories of the world's second largest economy.
"China is more worried about an economic slowdown now and will continue the policy easing cycle," said Zhang Zhiwei, chief China economist at Nomura in Hong Kong.
"Loan supply will increase in the first three months and China will cut interest rates probably in March. We expect GDP growth will slow down rapidly to 7.5 percent in the first quarter."
Three sources familiar with government plans told Reuters on Wednesday that China has set a target of 8 trillion yuan ($1.27 trillion) in new local-currency bank loans and 14 percent growth in broad M2 money supply for 2012, implying a further loosening of PBOC policy to support the economy as growth loses steam and inflation cools.
Beijing cut the ratio of cash banks are required to hold as reserves by 50 basis points in November to 21 percent, the first such cut in three years, in a move to boost corporate credit lines and help firms cushion falling demand at home and abroad.
Analysts in a recent poll by Reuters said they anticipated RRR cuts of at least 200 basis points through the course of 2012. Many expect to see a 50 bps cut from the People's Bank of China before the Lunar New Year holidays next week.
But the monetary policy moves are as much about maintaining the overall rate of money supply in the economy as they are a reaction to slower growth or easing price pressures, given that average inflation remains stubbornly above target and double-digit wage rises entrench consumers' inflationary expectations.
Many economists argue that capital outflows from China in October and November were behind November's RRR cut, given that it had been the policy tool of choice in the last 18 months to nullify upward pressure on money supply in Beijing's closed capital account from hitherto solid inflows of foreign funds.
"There's a debate about to what degree China is loosening or not. If anything this will support those who say that China is not significantly loosening so that's a disappointment for the market," Stephen Green, senior economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong, said.
"Speaking to our clients, there's really mixed messaging about what's happening with credit conditions, and of course we have yet to see another RRR cut," he added.
Market reaction was muted given that data was broadly in line with forecasts.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index <.HSI> bounced to an early high in a subdued morning session, while the commodity-driven Australian dollar -- particularly sensitive to Chinese data -- traded steady at around $1.0300 to the U.S. dollar.
INFLATION STILL ABOVE TARGET
The December inflation figure was the closest it came in 2011 to hitting the official target of 4 percent, leaving the average rate over the 12 months at 5.4 percent.
That's still too hot for China's conservative leaders who are reluctant to shift policy settings too quickly towards all-out growth mode. They insist that fine-tuning is sufficient to keep the economy on a stable expansion path.
Private sector economists are similarly wary.
"I'm hesitant to call for benchmark lending rate cuts as the PBOC has fought hard to keep inflation under control after the post-2008 recovery credit expansion and relaxing price control efforts prematurely could see elevated inflation collide with slower growth," Connie Tse, an economist at consultancy Forecast in Singapore said.
In month-on-month terms, the consumer price index rose 0.3 percent in December from November, after a 0.2 percent fall in November. The figure is not seasonally adjusted.
An uptick in the annual rate of food inflation to 9.1 percent from November's 8.8 percent -- the lowest since September 2010 -- would be troubling for China's government if it signaled a rebounding trend in the cost of basic foodstuffs.
Food prices in an economy where average monthly salaries are just 3,000 yuan ($476) are the biggest driver of discretionary consumer spending -- precisely the area the government says it wants to rebalance the economy towards to insulate against the risk of falling demand from the United States and Europe.
"Inflation spikes in China are food price spikes. However, the 2010/11 shock was the first that wasn't caused by a supply failure," Tim Condon, head of Asian economic research at ING in Singapore, wrote in a note to clients.
"Pork prices increased rapidly during the 2010/11 spike, but it was a case of strong spending and the time it took for the supply response -- imports, hog breeding -- to kick in."
Annual food inflation hit a high of 14.8 percent in July 2011, driving overall consumer prices to a three-year peak of 6.5 percent.
Evidence of slower economic growth is mounting though, even while inflation is still not yet as tame as Beijing might like.
The country's customs agency said on Tuesday that China's exports and imports grew at their slowest pace in more than two years in December, fresh evidence of cooling domestic and global economic conditions that could push Beijing towards a more pro-growth policy stance.
China's annual economic growth in the fourth quarter of 2011 may have slowed to 8.7 percent from 9.1 percent in Q3, according to the latest Reuters poll.
The National Bureau of Statistics is due to publish GDP and other economic activity data at 0200 GMT on January 17.
(Additional reporting by Beijing Economics Team; Editing by Alex Richardson)