MANILA, March 7 (Reuters) - Philippine annual inflation eased for the first time in six months in February owing to lower transport and food prices, but it is unlikely to budge the central bank from tightening monetary policy further.
The consumer price index (CPI) rose at a slower pace of 8.6% in February after accelerating non-stop since August, the statistics agency said on Tuesday, but core inflation quickened to 7.8% from 7.4% in January, suggesting price pressures remain.
With annual inflation still above the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas' (BSP) 2% to 4% comfort range, an interest rate hike at the central bank's March 23 meeting looks almost certain.
"The BSP remains prepared to adjust its monetary policy settings as necessary to prevent inflation expectations from becoming disanchored and safeguard the inflation target over the policy horizon," it said in a statement.
But with the headline inflation rate slower than expected and month-on-month inflation at zero, ING economist Nicholas Mapa in a Tweet said the BSP would likely opt for a quarter-point hike rather than a 50 bps increase.
Economists had forecast February inflation to quicken to 8.8%, while the central bank had 8.5% to 9.3% projection for February.
BSP has raised rates eight times for a total of 400 basis points since last year.
BSP Governor Felipe Medalla said on Friday he still expected inflation to return to within a target range by the fourth quarter of this year.