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Unexpected inflation jump adds to ECB headache

FILE PHOTO: Customers shop in a Lidl supermarket near Nice

PARIS/MADRID (Reuters) -Inflation in two of the euro zone's biggest economies rose unexpectedly this month, data showed on Tuesday, pushing up European Central Bank rate hike expectations and challenging the narrative that a rapid easing in price growth is now underway.

The ECB plans to raise its key rate by 50 basis points in March to 3% but some policymakers have called for more cautious steps thereafter as past rate hikes are now taking hold and the economy is starting to respond.

Inflation in France rose to 7.2% from 7.0%, beating forecasts for 7.0%, while in Spain, it jumped to 6.1% from 5.9% and ahead of the 5.5% seen in a Reuters survey.

The figures also raise doubts that the euro zone's combined figure, due on Thursday, will show a fall to 8.2% from 8.6% but economists say that the German number, due on Wednesday, will be more crucial than Tuesday's releases.

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Markets now fully price in another 150 basis points of rate hikes by the end of the year, taking the peak in the ECB's deposit rate to 4%, reflecting the view that it will take longer for the ECB to get price growth back to its 2% target.

Germany's 10-year bond yield, the benchmark for the euro zone, jumped to its highest level since 2011 at 2.66% as traders ramped up bets that ECB rates will peak around 4% at year-end.

Expectations for the peak in ECB rates have risen by over 40 basis points this month on fears that inflation will be more persistent than expected, particularly for core goods that exclude volatile fuel and food prices.

Some investors even think there is a risk of the ECB raising rates by more than 50 basis points in March, despite its explicit guidance for the move.

"Both reports were firmer than we had expected, suggesting more inflation persistence... hence, we flag some upside risk for (the euro zone release on) Thursday," JPMorgan economist Greg Fuzesi said.

In France, inflation still has some way to rise after its figures were among the lowest in the 20-nation euro area for the past year.

"The February data shows that French inflation has not reached its peak yet," ING economist Charlotte de Montpellier said. "Given how underlying global inflation will probably continue to go up in the coming months, that will give further arguments to the European Central Bank to continue to raise rates beyond the first quarter."

In Spain, core inflation also accelerated, adding to the ECB's worries that price growth is becoming persistent.

(Reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta, Joao Manuel Mauricio, Belén Carreño and Stefano Rebaudo; Writing by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Christina Fincher)