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India's headline inflation may ease below 6% by March -analysts

Debashis Dhara, a vegetable vendor, speaks on his mobile phone at a retail market area in Kolkata

MUMBAI (Reuters) - India's headline retail inflation may ease below 6% by the fourth quarter of this financial year, bringing an end to the current cycle of rate hikes, analysts said over the weekend.

Following the release of minutes from the central bank's monetary policy committee on Friday, analysts said the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) may hike repo rates by 50-60 basis points by December.

"We expect the RBI to deliver two 25 bps rate hikes at the September and December meetings, taking the repo rate to 5.90%," Rahul Bajoria, chief India economist at Barclays said.

India's consumer inflation dipped to 6.71% in July, easing for the third month in a row, but remained above the RBI's mandated target band of 2%-6% for a seventh straight month.

Despite signs of inflation having peaked in India, the outlook remains highly uncertain, members of the central bank's monetary policy committee said in their report.

Bringing retail price rise closer to RBI's target of 4% was essential to sustain economic growth over the medium term, the committee said.

Some analysts said a steep 50 basis points increase in repo rate was also possible next month.

"The possibility of a 50 bps hike in September can't be ruled out, if the (U.S.) Fed delivers another 75 bps hike," Gaura Sen Gupta, India economist at IDFC First Bank said in a note.

Earlier this month, the RBI raised the bank's key lending rate by 50 bps to 5.40%, its third increase in four months to curb rising price pressures.

The RBI has hiked repo rate by 140 basis points since May.

"In our view, the RBI is effectively being cautious in its policy approach, especially ahead of the winter cycle, when energy prices could be volatile," Bajoria of Barclays said.

Crude supplies could tighten again when European buyers start seeking alternative supplies to replace Russian oil ahead of European Union sanctions that take effect from Dec. 5.

Nomura retained its expectations of terminal repo rate being at 6.00% with 35 bps and 25 bps hike in September and December respectively.

"While the minutes confirm that more hikes are coming...the terminal policy rate is not too far away," analysts Sonal Varma and Aurodeep Nandi said.

(Reporting by Dharamraj Lalit Dhutia; Editing by Neha Arora)