By Kevin Yao and Xiaoyi Shao
BEIJING (Reuters) - China's annual consumer inflation rate rose to a seven-month high of 3.1 percent in September as poor weather drove up food prices, limiting the scope for the central bank to maneuver to support the economy even as exports showed a surprise decline.
But few analysts expect a further sharp rise in inflation or policy tightening in coming months as the world's second-largest economy still faces a weak global environment and Beijing tries to tap the brake on credit-fuelled investment.
The inflation rate was higher than a median forecast of 2.9 percent in a Reuters poll and August's 2.6 percent, but was still below the official target of 3.5 percent for 2013.
"We expect CPI inflation to rise further in Q4 and see rising risks that it may rise above 3.5 percent for some months in 2014," said Zhiwei Zhang, China economist at Nomura in Hong Kong.
"The rise of CPI inflation leaves little room for policy easing as the benchmark deposit rate is only 3 percent."
Upbeat September credit data released later on Monday signaled that the central bank may have already eased up its control on bank lending following a liquidity crunch in June, which analysts warn could fan property bubbles and long-term inflation risks.
Month-on-month, consumer prices rose 0.8 percent, the National Bureau of Statistics said, bigger than a rise of 0.5 percent expected by economists.
Food prices gained 1.5 percent in September from August due to droughts and floods in some areas, pushing up the CPI by 0.51 percentage points, Yu Qiumei, a senior statistician at the bureau, said in a statement.
In annual terms, food prices jumped 6.1 percent.
"September CPI inflation gained more momentum on seasonal factors and a low base effect from last year," said Li Huiyong, an economist at Shenyin & Wanguo Securities in Shanghai.
"But we think the inflation situation is still under well control and will not be a concern this year, especially when the economy is struggling with over-capacity problems."
China's exports dropped 0.3 percent in September from a year earlier, against expectations of a 6 percent rise, data showed on Saturday, a disappointing break to a recent run of indicators that had signaled the economy may be regaining momentum.
The decline in exports also raised questions about the strength of the global economic recovery, though solid import data for the same month helped offset some concerns.
FACTORY-GATE DEFLATION EASES
Factory-gate deflation eased further in September, although in annual terms prices still recorded a 19th consecutive fall, highlighting the pressures facing Chinese companies.
Producer prices fell 1.3 percent from a year earlier, a smaller fall than the 1.4 percent expected by the market and the 1.6 percent drop in August.
However, there was some relief to manufacturers struggling to cope with profit-eating price declines, as producer prices rose 0.2 percent from August.
After slowing in nine of the past 10 quarters, the economy looks to have stabilized since mid-year after Beijing acted to head off a sharper downturn with increased spending on public housing construction, railways and tax cuts for smaller firms.
Chinese banks made 787 billion yuan ($128.6 billion) worth of new yuan loans in September, higher than a forecast of 650 billion yuan and more than the previous month's 711.3 billion yuan.
Total social financing (TSF), a broad measure of liquidity in the economy, was at 1.4 trillion yuan in September versus August's 1.57 trillion yuan - which nearly doubled from July's level.
"The September new yuan loan figures were much higher than market expectations, indicating that the central bank has kept liquidity conditions relatively loose to bolster the economic recovery," said Li at Shenyin & Wanguo.
Beijing wants to keep the economy on an even keel in the run-up to a top-level government meeting on economic reforms in November, analysts said.
Annual economic growth is forecast to have accelerated to 7.8 percent in the third quarter from 7.5 percent in the second quarter, but the recovery could fizzle towards the year-end, a Reuters poll showed.
Third-quarter GDP growth data, along with industrial output, fixed-asset investment and retail sales, is due on Friday.
Beijing has a growth target of 7.5 percent for 2013, which would be the weakest rate in more than 20 years, and has repeatedly said it would accept slower growth as it tries to wean the economy off dependence on investment and exports in favor of domestic consumption.
"The economy faces some downward pressures, especially by looking at the export data. Full-year GDP growth could be 7.6 percent," said Zhou Hao, China economist at ANZ in Shanghai.
(China Economics Team; Editing by John Mair & Kim Coghill)