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Euro-area inflation hits 2% as ECB debates policy

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Euro-area inflation accelerated to the fastest pace since January 2013, providing fresh arguments to those calling for an exit from the European Central Bank's monetary stimulus program.

[MADRID] Euro-area inflation accelerated to the fastest pace since January 2013, providing fresh arguments to those calling for an exit from the European Central Bank's monetary stimulus program.

Consumer prices rose 2 per cent in February from a year earlier, the European Union's statistics agency in Luxembourg said Thursday. That matched the median estimate of 47 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg. The rate was 1.8 per cent in January.

Rising oil prices have been pushing up inflation across the euro area, including in Germany, its largest economy, Spain and Italy.

In a sign of further increases ahead, producer-price growth jumped to the highest in almost five years, rising 3.5 per cent in January on annual basis and exceeding the median estimate of a 3.2 per cent increase in a Bloomberg News survey.

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Meanwhile, the euro area's core inflation, which strips out volatile elements such as energy was unchanged for the third consecutive month in February at 0.9 per cent.

"The focus remains on core inflation, which isn't looking great," said Frederik Ducrozet, senior economist at Banque Pictet & Cie SA in Geneva.

"It's stable at best and as long as this remains the case, there is no reason to even think about a policy change."

The divergence between the two inflation indicators highlights the challenges facing the ECB in choosing the right amount of monetary stimulus. While headline inflation is moving upward in line with the central bank's goal of a rate below but close to 2 per cent, the persistent weakness of core inflation is a source of concern for officials including ECB President Mario Draghi.

The euro-area unemployment was unchanged at 9.6 per cent in January, the lowest since May 2009, statistics agency Eurostat said in a separate release Thursday.

Back in January, Mr Draghi pointed to a new set of criteria arguing that the return to the ECB's inflation goal must be durable, self-sustained and representative of the euro area as whole.

On that basis, the ECB may well look through the recent surge in prices because of the energy-cost effect.

The ECB's latest projections foresee an average inflation rate of 1.3 per cent this year, before accelerating to 1.5 per cent in 2018. The central bank will update those forecasts on March 9 after a meeting of its Governing Council.

Jens Weidmann became the first policy maker to provide clues on how much the European Central Bank may raise its inflation forecast next week.

"Inflation this year is likely to be well in excess of the figure projected to date," the Governing Council member said Wednesday in a speech in Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The projection for Germany could be raised by half a percentage point "and this might also be the case for the euro area as a whole," he said.

ECB's Mr Draghi has repeatedly said the risks to the economic outlook for the 19-nation euro area remain tilted to the downside due to external issues including the agenda of US President Donald Trump and the impact of Prime Minister Theresa May's plan to take the UK out of the EU.

Elections this year in euro-area core member states of France, Germany and the Netherlands add to the uncertainty.