* Rupee ends at 53.96/97 per dlr vs 54.21/22 on Wednesday
* Better-than-expected trade data further boosts local unit
* Rupee gains for second straight week, more gains likely
By Swati Bhat
MUMBAI, April 18 (Reuters) - The Indian rupee strengthened on Thursday with the underlying sentiment remaining bullish on the back of growing rate cut hopes from the central bank's upcoming annual monetary policy on May 3.
Sharp gains in the domestic share market following the better-than-expected trade data also aided sentiment.
India's exports fell 1.8 percent in the 2012/13 fiscal year, the trade ministry said on Thursday, but they were up for the third straight month in March, offering some relief to the record current account deficit.
Analysts believe the recent slump in global gold and crude prices, if sustained, should wipe out a big portion of India's current account deficit, providing more elbow-room to the central bank to lower rates for the third time this year.
India's Finance Minister, P. Chidambaram, also said on Wednesday he expected the country's current account deficit for the 2012/13 fiscal year ended March to be around 5 percent of gross domestic product and perhaps half that amount in one to two years.
"The rupee rally is likely to continue next week as well. We are likely to see a broad range of 53.70 to 54.50 next week," said Ashtosh Raina, head of foreign exchange trading at HDFC Bank.
The partially convertible rupee closed at 53.96/97 per dollar, stronger than its close of 54.21/22 on Wednesday. The pair moved in a range of 53.9550 to 54.24 during the session.
India's NSE index closed at its highest level in a month, led by gains in rate-sensitive stocks such as HDFC after exports data stoke rate-cut hopes.
In the onshore forwards market, the one-year forward premium dropped to 354.25 points, its lowest since March 19, as offshore long dollar unwinding also prompted receiving in the onshore forwards market, traders said.
In the offshore non-deliverable forwards, the one-month contract was at 54.16 while the three-month was at 54.74.
"The outlook for onshore forwards depends on exporters receiving going ahead," HDFC Bank's Raina said. "If they come into the market, we can see a down slide, otherwise will be stuck in range".
In the currency futures market, the most-traded near-month dollar/rupee contracts on the National Stock Exchange, the MCX-SX and the United Stock Exchange all closed at around 54.02 with a total traded volume of $7.5 billion. (Editing by Anand Basu)