By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Euro zone inflation slowed as expected in November, while core inflation readings were below market expectations, supporting European Central Bank policymakers who favour a cautious exit from monetary stimulus.
Consumer prices in the 19 countries sharing the euro rose by 2.0 percent year-on-year in November after a near six-year high of 2.2 percent in October, EU statistics agency Eurostat said on Friday.
The decline matched the average expectation in a Reuters poll of economists.
Headline inflation has been at or above the ECB's target of almost 2 percent for months, but the bank has downplayed the risk of an overshoot, arguing that underlying trends remain weak and only volatile energy costs are pushing up consumer prices.
Indeed, Eurostat said that energy prices rose by 9.1 percent year-on-year, from 10.7 percent in October, while unprocessed food prices were up 1.8 percent, from a 2.1 percent increase last month.
Inflation excluding those two volatile components - the core indicator that the ECB watches in its policy decisions - also fell, to 1.1 percent from 1.2 percent in October, against expectations of a slight increase.
Another core inflation reading often watched by economists, which removes all food, energy, alcohol and tobacco prices, also dropped to 1.0 percent. Forecasts were for it to be unchanged at 1.1 percent.
Both indicate that record employment and rising wages have yet to fully feed through to prices.
The ECB still plans to end its 2.6 trillion euro (2.32 trillion pounds) bond purchase scheme next month, arguing that inflation is now well on its way to the target and the euro zone economy will continue to expand even with reduced support.
But it also expects to maintain an oversized balance sheet for years to come and interest rates at record lows at least through next summer to keep monetary policy highly accommodative for an extended period.
The ECB now expects inflation to average 1.7 percent through 2020 but an oil price <LCOc1> drop of more than 30 percent since early October has raised downside risks to its projections.
The bank will next meet on Dec. 13 and investors expect it to reaffirm its policy stance and to detail how it will use cash from maturing bonds to keep borrowing costs low.
Eurostat's flash estimate does not include a month-on-month calculation.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Additional reporting by Balazs Koranyi in Frankfurt; Editing by Francesco Guarascio and Peter Graff)