May 4, 2017 / 2:31 PM / 3 months ago

UPDATE 1-Czech central bank watches crown in debate on when to lift rates

3 Min Read

* Leaves interest rates near zero on Thursday

* First policy meeting since crown cap exit in April

* Analysts see first rate hike in H1 2018

* Governor says crown key for future hikes

* Forecasts TABLE Statement TEXT (Adds bank statement, forecasts, Governor comments)

PRAGUE, May 4 (Reuters) - The Czech central bank left interest rates near zero on Thursday, pinning the timing of its first rate hike in almost a decade largely on the crown's uncertain path after its currency cap was lifted a month ago.

With heavy investor positioning in the crown built up this year, the currency has been slow out the gates since the central bank on April 6 ended a market intervention regime that had kept it artificially weak for over three years.

The bank has said the exit was the first step toward normalising monetary conditions after years of an ultra-loose policy that saw the main repo rate fall to 0.05 percent in 2012, from 3.75 percent at the beginning of 2008.

The crown traded barely half a percent stronger than its former cap level of 27 to the euro on Thursday after initially firming only as much as 2 percent last month.

That is a far cry from the 5 percent the crown lost in November 2013 when the bank put the cap in place, and gains are much less than hoped for by investors who bet billions of euros on the currency jumping once free.

Governor Jiri Rusnok reiterated on Thursday it could take months for the market to clear out, allowing the crown to find its new market value. But he also said a lengthy period of the crown near 27 per euro would mean more need for policy tightening than if the currency firms.

"If this very slight or almost no firming from the level of the exchange rate commitment lasts longer, it is logical that ... it will create more need for action," he told a news conference.

A majority of analysts in a Reuters poll this week forecast a rate hike only in the first half of 2018.

The bank's updated forecast counts on currency firming thanks to economic gains but it sees a risk of dampened appreciation in the coming quarters due to the market situation.

The updated outlook on Thursday presented a somewhat lower expected path of market interest rates, proxy for official rates, than three months ago. It forecast the 3-month interbank Pribor rate at 0.5 percent in 2017 and 0.8 percent in 2018, the latter down from a previous estimate of 1.1 percent.

The Czech economy has grown solidly for nearly a dozen quarters, inflation is above the central bank's 2 percent since January and unemployment is the lowest level in the European Union, boosting wages and consumer spending.

Analysts and businesses see the crown as undervalued by several percent while a Reuters poll sees the currency firming over 4 percent against the euro in the next 12 months.

But there is market overhang as investors hold onto positions waiting for stronger gains or struggle to find counterparties. (Reporting by Jan Lopatka and Petra Vodstrcilova; Writing by Jason Hovet; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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