By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Central Bank's dilemma over barely rising prices seems likely to dominate a week starting with a euro zone inflation estimate and ending with U.S. jobs figures, the monetary policy driver on the other side of the Atlantic.
After more than a month of East-West tensions centered on Russia's annexation of Crimea, U.S. President Barack Obama and Russia's Vladimir Putin finally spoke to each other on Friday, suggesting a possible diplomatic path out of crisis.
With geopolitical issues calmer, even if not resolved, the financial markets are more likely to be guided more by global economic data and central bank deliberations.
The ECB's Governing Council meets on Thursday and, although the vast majority of economists expect it to hold interest rates (ECB/INT), it is wrestling with a response to inflation persistently below its target of below but close to 2 percent.
The first estimate of euro zone inflation for March will be published on Monday.
Initial figures from Germany showed EU harmonized inflation easing by slightly more than forecast to 0.9 percent year-on-year, while in Spain consumer prices fell at their steepest annual pace in almost four-and-a-half years.
That could push the level for the euro zone as a whole even below the 0.6 percent consensus from February's 0.7 percent. The figure is set to be the lowest since November 2009.
It will also be a sixth straight month of inflation in the ECB's "danger zone" of below 1 percent, although the bank can point to energy and food prices as the culprits. A far later Easter this year should also lead to a rebound in April.
The ECB left interest rates on hold and took no new measures to bolster the fragile recovery at its last monthly meeting. Its president, Mario Draghi, suggested then that the bank would either do nothing or take bold action should the outlook deteriorate.
That could include buying loans and other assets from banks, something Germany's Bundesbank, a long-time critic of quantitative easing (QE), accepted last week as a viable option.
For now, most economists believe the ECB will maintain its current course.
"I don't think there'll be enough for the ECB to deliver something next week. We do see this happening in June, when there will have been a cleaner May inflation figure and new ECB staff forecasts," said Guillaume Menuet, economist at Citi.
'CLEANER' U.S. JOBS NUMBERS
Federal Reserve policy comes back into focus on Friday with U.S. March non-farm payroll and unemployment data - the key determinant of the pace at which the U.S. central bank cuts its bond buying program.
U.S. job creation slowed sharply in December and January, turning in its weakest performance in three years, but extreme winter weather played a key role.
February brought an encouraging 175,000 posts even as freezing temperatures held sway.
Economists on average believe around 200,000 more Americans joined the workforce in March, though the number is among the most difficult of numbers to forecast, with the U.S. economy on average creating and destroying around 8 million jobs per month.
"It will be cleaner than anything we've seen since the start of winter... So if it is bad, it would have a bigger impact," said ING chief international economist Rob Carnell.
Still, many believe the Fed will not easily change course. It has cut its monthly bond purchases by $10 billion at each of its last three meetings, and a similar reduction is expected when officials next meet on April 29-30.
"There's a high hurdle to changing the pace of the taper. It would need a reading of below 100,000 to change the course," Aichi Amemiya of Nomura Securities.
The unemployment rate, a slightly more predictable and less volatile indicator, is seen dropping to 6.6 percent from 6.7 percent in February.
JAPAN SALES TAX HIKE
In Japan, the start of April on Tuesday local time will bring a rise of national sales tax to 8 percent from 5 percent.
Economists will be trying to assess its impact from the March purchasing manager index, February factory output and housing starts on Monday, with slowing growth as late demand ahead of the tax hike has peaked.
Tuesday's much-watched tankan report from the Bank of Japan will most probably show an improvement in business sentiment for a fifth straight quarter in the three months to March, although a dip is seen for the April-June period.
In China, more comprehensive and final purchasing manager indices for manufacturing and services are expected to confirm the view that the world's second largest economy is facing a slowdown.
A preliminary PMI survey last week by HSBC and Markit Economics showed that factory sector activity hit an eight-month low. [ID:nL4N0ML0CG] The official PMI is seen ticking up slightly for the first time since November.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last week said Beijing was ready to support the cooling economy, with some economists now believing the country's official growth target of 7.5 percent this year is too ambitious after a week first quarter.
(Additional reporting by Tetsushi Kajimoto in Tokyo, Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by John Stonestreet)
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