ECB to hunker down as eurozone outlook worsens | 2019-01-23

ECB to hunker down as eurozone outlook worsens

23 January, 2019 12:00 AM printer

FRANKFURT AM MAIN: Analysts expect the European Central Bank to acknowledge growing risks to the eurozone economy Thursday while sticking to its patient course, kicking off a year that could see the Frankfurt institution mostly marking time.

The central bank is caught at an intermediate stage of withdrawing crisis-era stimulus, having wound up net purchases of government and corporate bonds -- so-called "quantitative easing" (QE) -- but seeing the economy still too fragile to lift interest rates from their historic lows, report agencies.

Policymakers agreed in December to end QE after pumping a total of 2.6 trillion euros ($3 trillion) into the financial system.

The scheme aimed to power lending to the real economy of businesses and households, lifting economic growth and boosting inflation towards the ECB target of just below 2.0 percent.

ECB president Mario Draghi said last month that QE had been "the crucial driver of recovery in the eurozone" since its introduction in 2015 -- while insisting growth could continue after its withdrawal and blaming one-off factors for signs of weakening momentum.

Since then, new data "have done little to stop fears of a more prolonged slowdown," ING Diba bank economist Carsten Brzeski said. "Confidence indicators are still plunging, hard data remains weak and latest Brexit developments suggest that new turbulence in both financial markets and the real economy is still on the horizon."

Weaker-than-expected economic growth will likely make for slower inflation than the 1.6 percent the ECB forecasts for this year -- an argument for the central bank to keep interest rates low beyond the current horizon of "through the summer of 2019".

"Markets are already looking further" into the future for the next rate hike, Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Gilles Moec said.

"To create a shock (on markets) you would have to give a still further time horizon" sometime in 2020, he added -- an extension likely to be resisted by "hawks" on the ECB's governing council.

If the ECB does draw out the wait for higher interest rates much beyond the summer, Draghi could end his term in October as the only president never to raise them.