PREVIEW-Japan prices hover at 5-yr high, job market stays firm as tax hike looms


* Feb core CPI seen +1.3 pct yr/yr, unchanged from Jan

* Jobs availability likely improves to 1.05 vs 1.04 in Jan

* Household spending, retail sales seen up at moderate pace

* CPI, Jobless, Household spending due 8:30 a.m. March 28 (2330 GMT March27)

TOKYO, March 20 (Reuters) - Japan's consumer inflation probably hovered at a five-year peak in February while the job market likely remain solid, a Reuters poll showed, but a sales tax hike next month is clouding the outlook for the world's third-largest economy. Household spending and retail sales likely rose, helped by last-minute buying before the tax increase on April 1, but the pace of the gains is seen as only moderate. Many analysts project the economy will contract temporarily in April-June due to a pull back in consumption after the tax hike, but they expect it will return to moderate growth in a few months. "Energy prices such as electricity and gas remain high but upward pressure on overall prices from them is weakening gradually," said Takeshi Minami, chief economist at Norinchukin Research Institute. "Durable goods prices are on the rise due to rush demand before the tax hike, thus both upward and downward pressure on prices are seen balancing out." The core consumer price index, which excludes volatile fresh food prices but includes oil products, likely rose 1.3 percent in February from a year earlier, a Reuters poll of 28 economists showed. The index rose 1.3 percent in January and in December, which was the quickest gain since 1.9 percent in October 2008. Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda has repeatedly said the nation was on track to achieve the central bank's 2 percent inflation target but he is willing to act if risks to the outlook lead to a change in the bank's projection. Earlier this month, the BOJ maintained its massive monetary stimulus and stuck to its upbeat view on the economy but downgraded its assessment of exports. A recent Reuters' poll showed most economists expect the central bank will ease policy again by July as prospects for higher inflation remain remote and the outlook for the economy weakens. The availability of jobs, or the jobs-to-applicants ratio, is forecast to have improved to 1.05 in February, the highest since July 2007, from 1.04 in January, according to the poll. The jobless rate probably stayed at 3.7 percent last month, the same as in January and December, which was the lowest since July 2007. "Firms' appetite for hiring has risen rapidly as rush demand before the sales tax hike gets into full swing and there is a persistent labour shortage in the construction-related industry," economists at Shinkin Central Bank said in the Reuters poll. Household spending will likely to show a 0.1 percent rise in February from a year ago after a 1.1 percent gain in January and 0.7 percent increase in December, the poll showed. The CPI, jobs data and household spending will be released at 8:30 a.m. on March 28 (2330 GMT March 27). Retail sales data, which is due at 8:50 a.m. on the same day, probably rose 3.2 percent in February from a year ago, the poll showed, after a 4.4 percent gain in January, the fastest annual gain since April 2012.

(Editing by Kim Coghill)