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UPDATE 2-Turkey inflation above 16% in test for new cenbank chief

(Adds graphic, prices context)

ISTANBUL, April 5 (Reuters) - Turkey’s annual inflation climbed above 16% in March for the first time since mid-2019, data showed on Monday, piling pressure on the central bank’s new chief to maintain tight policy after his surprise appointment sparked a lira selloff.

The data was in line with forecasts and shows inflation has risen for six straight months to well above a 5% official target. It has been in double digits for most of the past four years.

The former central bank governor, Naci Agbal, had raised the policy rate to 19% from 10.25%. But he was ousted on March 20 - after only four months on the job and two days after a last rate hike - prompting a 12% drop in the lira to near record lows.

President Tayyip Erdogan has abruptly fired four bank chiefs in less than two years, hurting monetary credibility and contributing to the currency’s long-term decline, which in turn has driven up overall inflation via imports.

There are signs the weaker lira is raising prices: the producer price index jumped 4.13% month-on-month in March for an annual rise of 31.2%, the Turkish Statistical Institute data showed.

Consumer prices were up 16.19% year-on-year, higher than 16.11% in a Reuters poll and 15.61% in February. Month-on-month CPI inflation was 1.08%, compared to a poll forecast of 1.04%.

Sahap Kavcioglu, the new bank chief, has in the past criticised tight policy, including making the unorthodox claim shared by Erdogan that high rates cause inflation. Yet he has told investors and bankers in recent weeks rates must remain high due to high inflation.

The monthly CPI price rise was underpinned by demand in the health, education and hospitality groups, including restaurants, after coronavirus measures were eased.

Annual rises were driven by energy and imports, which raised transportation-related prices by nearly 25%.

According to a February forecast, the central bank expected a maximum of 17% inflation in March and a bit more in April. Analysts predict it will rise through April, when Goldman Sachs expects it to peak at 18%.

Reporting by Oben Mumcuoglu and Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Jonathan Spicer & Shri Navaratnam

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