ECB keeps policy unchanged; to push back on rate-hike bets

FRANKFURT (Reuters) -The European Central Bank kept policy unchanged on Thursday as widely expected, holding fire before a crucial December decision on whether to end emergency stimulus and return policy to a more normal setting.

FILE PHOTO: European Central Bank (ECB) headquarters building is seen in Frankfurt, Germany, March 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ralph Orlowski

The bank reaffirmed its plan to keep buying bonds to pin borrowing costs near record lows and also promised to hold down interest rates for years to come – a pledge increasingly challenged by financial investors who doubt the ECB’s narrative that high inflation is temporary.

The ECB has long argued the current spike in prices is fleeting and that underlying inflation pressures are weak enough to require its support for years to come.

But household inflation expectations are now rising quickly and investors are also doubting that view, pricing in a rate hike by the end of next year and opening a big gap between the ECB’s own guidance and market expectations.

ECB Chief Economist Philip Lane has tried unsuccessfully to push back, meaning ECB President Christine Lagarde is likely to make a more concerted effort when she speaks at a 1230 GMT news conference.

The problem is that inflation across the 19-country euro zone will approach 4% next month and even if the rise is due to one-off factors like rising oil prices and tax hikes, transient inflation often becomes entrenched if it lingers long enough.

The phenomenon is global, however, and central banks around the world are already reacting.

The Bank of Canada was the latest to do so, when it signalled on Wednesday it could hike interest rates as soon as April 2022 and said inflation would stay above target through much of next year.

The U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England have also signalled policy tightening while several smaller banks, from Norway to South Korea, have already hiked rates.

The ECB is likely to remain an outlier. Come December, it is likely to decide to end emergency stimulus but will probably ramp up another support scheme to pick up the slack and keep borrowing costs down.

With Thursday’s decision, the ECB will continue buying bonds at a pace “moderately” slower than in the preceding two quarters and will keep its benchmark rate at minus 0.50%.

CAUTION

At issue in the disconnect between the ECB and markets is interpretation of the bank’s policy guidance, which stipulates rates will not rise until inflation is seen heading back to target by the middle of the forecast period and is set to hold there.

That is unlikely to happen for years, according to the bank’s projections, so investors pricing in a rate hike by next October fail to understand the guidance, policymakers argue.

The ECB has plenty of reasons to be cautions.

For inflation to become more durable, wages would need to rise but hard data is not showing any alarming trends.

Credibility is also at stake. The ECB has undershot its target for nearly a decade so a premature move would hit its reputation, as would a move that is far out of line with its own guidance.

Policymakers also keenly remember the bank’s rate hike on the eve of the bloc’s debt crisis a decade ago, arguably the biggest policy error in the history of the institution.

Finally, a notable economic slowdown in the coming quarter also argues in favour of cooler expectations for tighter policy.

With much of the bloc’s industry suffering from some level of supply shortages, growth is likely to slow with a fresh wave of the coronavirus pandemic likely hitting services, too.

All of this adds up to suggest a cautious tone from the ECB with a repeat of the argument that even the removal of emergency stimulus is just a recalibration of policy not the withdrawal of support.

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