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Euro zone inflation edges up to dim chance of new ECB action

An employee sits next to crates of peaches at the central vegetable market in Athens August 19, 2014. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis

By Robert-Jan Bartunek

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Inflation in the 18 countries sharing the euro edged up slightly in October, reinforcing the view that the European Central Bank will hold fire on any additional policy action at its meeting next week.

A first estimate on Friday from the European Union's statistics office showed consumer prices in the euro zone rose by 0.4 percent in October, in line with market expectations. A day earlier, German data showed inflation in Europe's largest economy slowing in October to 0.7 percent, its lowest reading since May.

Nick Kounis, head of macro research at ABN AMRO, said a number of factors meant ECB action as early as next week was unlikely, but that he expected further measures by the first quarter of next year.

"We still think that the ECB is likely to further step up its monetary easing," he said "If you get any kind of economic shock with inflation this low, there is a risk, albeit a small risk, of deflation."

ECB policymakers still appear somewhat divided on the likelihood of deflation in the euro area.

The central bank's chief economist Peter Praet told Belgian media earlier this week that the possibility was limited, but Governing Council Member Ignazio Visco said on Friday that policymakers needed to remain cautious.

"We are not in deflation but we cannot ignore the concrete risk of it," the Italian said in a speech to a conference in Rome shortly after Eurostat published its data.

The statistics office said prices rose fastest for services, up 1.2 percent, followed by a 0.5 percent increase in food, alcohol and tobacco costs.

Unprocessed food prices fell 0.1 percent year-on-year in October while energy was 1.8 percent cheaper, a slowdown in the rate of decline from September when prices for these goods dropped 0.9 and 2.3 percent respectively.

Excluding unprocessed food and energy, prices rose 0.8 percent in October, a stable rate from September. This number is referred to as core inflation by the European Central Bank.

The euro (=EUR) initially strengthened against the dollar and the pound following the release of the data but quickly gave up these gains and remained below levels seen at the start of the trading session.

The ECB, which has a mandate to keep inflation below but close to 2 percent, has committed to an expansionary policy, including an asset-buying plan, and has said it will consider further measures if needed.

Better-than-forecast economic sentiment figures on Thursday, which also showed higher inflation expectations among consumers and producers, may give the central bank an incentive to hold off on further policy action before the end of the year.

"The small rise in euro zone consumer price inflation to 0.4 percent in October reinforces the already very strong likelihood that the ECB will sit tight at its 6 November policy meeting," said IHS Chief European Economist Howard Archer

Eurostat data also showed on Friday that unemployment in the euro zone remained unchanged at 11.5 percent in September.

(Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Editing by Adrian Croft and Catherine Evans)