Mario Draghi will probably hint at the likelihood of more policy action as he unveils economic forecasts for the euro area.
The European Central Bank president releases inflation and growth projections today in the first rate-setting meeting since a surprise November cut that a quarter of the Governing Council opposed. Officials in Frankfurt will keep the benchmark interest rate and the deposit rate unchanged this time round, according to all economists in a Bloomberg News survey. The decision will be announced at 1:45 p.m. in Frankfurt and Draghi will hold a press conference that includes the forecasts 45 minutes later.
The predictions should add fuel to the debate over whether the ECB has done enough to support the euro-region’s economic revival or whether it needs to turn to measures such as a negative deposit rate or the publication of minutes. While inflation is well below the ECB’s target and the nascent recovery is showing signs of fragility, the fact that official interest rates are near zero means any further easing is likely to be unorthodox.
“As conventional measures have been largely depleted, the ECB is now confronted with policy choices that may have significant side-effects on the functioning of markets, the banking system and even on their reputation,” said Elwin de Groot, senior market economist at Rabobank Nederland in Utrecht. “It seems fair to conclude that the council is divided on the way forward.”
The Bank of England will keep its asset-purchase target at 375 billion pounds ($615 billion) and hold its benchmark rate at 0.5 percent today, according to separate surveys. That decision is due at noon in London.
Since the ECB cut its key rate to a record low of 0.25 percent last month, data has shown that the euro-area recovery came close to a halt in the third quarter as the French economy unexpectedly shrank and Italy extended its longest postwar recession. Lending has continued to contract and a survey of purchasing managers showed manufacturing and services output in the 17-nation region slowed for a second month in November.
“The recovery is weak,” said Anders Svendsen, an economist at Nordea Bank Denmark A/S in Copenhagen. “We expect very dovish signals from the ECB at this week’s monetary-policy meeting, but no change in key rates. Risks are clearly skewed toward another rate cut and the door is likely to be left wide open to all non-conventional measures.”
Euro-area inflation was 0.9 percent in November, compared with the ECB’s target of just under 2 percent, and prices are stagnating or declining on an annual basis in five of the 17 euro nations. That means economists and investors are awaiting economic projections for 2015 to gauge the ECB’s need to act.
The institution currently predicts inflation will average 1.5 percent this year and 1.3 percent in 2014, with the economy contracting 0.4 percent and growing 1 percent, respectively.
The new forecasts should give “both an indication of the ECB’s current level of tolerance to low inflation and also help guide market expectations as to how long the ECB’s accommodative policy is likely to be in place,” said Nick Matthews, senior economist at Nomura International Plc in London.
Matthews predicts the ECB’s staff will forecast inflation and economic growth of 1.3 percent in 2015. Andrew Bosomworth, managing director at Pacific Investment Management Co. in Munich, said the forecasts will be for 2015 inflation of slightly below 1.6 percent and growth of about 1.5 percent.
ECB Governing Council member Ardo Hansson said in an interview on Nov. 22 that policy makers haven’t “fully exhausted” their room to cut interest rates yet and have a variety of “other measures” at their disposal if needed.
One unprecedented option that officials have discussed is charging banks for the excess liquidity they park at the ECB, which would make it the first major central bank to venture into negative deposit rates.
While Draghi said last month that the institution is “technically ready” for a rate below zero, he also cautioned that the consequences aren’t clear. One risk is that banks are unable to pass the cost onto their depositors, squeezing their profit margins and deterring them from lending to companies, households or each other.
Janet Yellen, the nominee for U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman, said in testimony to the Senate Banking Committee in Washington on Nov. 14 that lowering the deposit rate increases the risk that money markets are disrupted. The Fed currently pays 0.25 percent on excess reserves.
Bloomberg News reported on Nov. 20. that officials are weighing a smaller-than-usual cut in the deposit rate to minus 0.1 percent to minimize any disturbance. ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio said in an interview on Nov. 27 that the policy would be invoked only in “quite extreme situations” and the council is “not really near a decision.”
Constancio also said that banks’ access to funding has improved and “is not the main cause of concern,” suggesting that measures to increase liquidity such as new long-term loans aren’t imminent. Banks have returned almost 40 percent of the 1 trillion euros ($1.4 trillion) in emergency cash they borrowed for three years at the height of the financial crisis in 2011 and 2012.
Even so, risks remain. As banks adjust their balance sheets at the end of the year, the rate on 1-month Eonia swaps, a measure of interbank lending, has jumped to the highest level in almost 1 1/2 years at 0.15 percent and now exceeds the rate for 6-month swaps. That signals banks are charging more for short-term funding, undermining the ECB’s easy-money policy.
A surge in market rates this year prompted Draghi in July to introduce the ECB’s forward guidance, a pledge to keep official interest rates at or below current levels for an extended period.
While Draghi may not offer a more specific commitment today, he may announce more transparency to come in the release of details of the Governing Council’s deliberations. He said in August that the ECB’s Executive Board will make a proposal to the council “during this fall.”
That’s also a point of debate. Governors including Estonia’s Hansson and Austria’s Ewald Nowotny have expressed their concern that publishing minutes with individual votes might expose policy makers to political pressure from their national governments.
“The ECB’s job is far from done and more action is likely in the coming months,” said Carsten Brzeski, senior economist at ING Groep NV in Brussels. “But none of the possible steps are without risk. The ECB will need to find the right balance between being bold and reckless.”
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