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ECB Gets Mixed Inflation Signals as Draghi Considers QE

Customers Browse Clothing in a Store in Berlin
Inflation in Germany, the largest euro-area economy, missed estimates yesterday, and economic confidence unexpectedly fell in April. Photographer: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Mario Draghi got conflicting signals on inflation in April as the European Central Bank considers taking unprecedented steps as soon as next week to avert the risk of deflation.

The headline annual inflation rate missed forecasts in rising to 0.7 percent from 0.5 percent in March, the European Union’s statistics office in Luxembourg said today. Yet the core rate, which strips out volatile items such as energy, food, alcohol and tobacco, rose in line with estimates to 1 percent, and the price of services increased at the fastest pace in more than a year.

“We didn’t have a shocker, or a smoking gun, that the ECB could use to ease as soon as next week,” said Frederik Ducrozet, an economist at Credit Agricole CIB in Paris. Ducrozet said he sticks by his forecast of a cut in the main refinancing rate in June, with a deposit rate reduction, pushing it into negative territory, if the euro appreciates.

Today’s data was seen as critical for the ECB as it decides whether to embrace policies ranging from negative interest rates to quantitative easing. Draghi said in Amsterdam last week that the Frankfurt-based central bank may start broad-based asset purchases if the inflation outlook worsens.

The ECB, which seeks to maintain inflation just below 2 percent over the medium term, forecasts price growth at 1 percent this year, rising to 1.5 percent in 2016.

Energy Prices

Today’s inflation report, which also showed the decline of energy prices slowing to 1.2 percent from 2.1 percent in March, adds to the mixed signals coming from the euro area’s fledging recovery. While economic confidence unexpectedly decreased in April, consumer sentiment improved more than estimated. The unemployment rate, which probably held at 11.9 percent in March, has retreated from last year’s record.

“With underlying inflation not falling further, the ECB seems unlikely to downgrade its inflation outlook next week and hence will probably keep policy unchanged,” said Martin van Vliet, senior euro economist at ING Groep NV in Amsterdam. Further policy easing is “unlikely” before June, he said, with an interest rate cut as the “first line of defense.”

ECB policy makers will also keep an eye on the strength of the euro as they prepare for their next meeting on May 8. If a rising exchange rate led to “a tightening of monetary conditions, a downward impact on inflation and potentially a threat to the ongoing recovery,” this would call for “policy action to maintain the current accommodative stance,” Draghi said in his Amsterdam speech.

‘Market Consensus’

The euro erased losses against the dollar after today’s data were published, trading at $1.3831 at 1:01 p.m. in Brussels, up 0.1 percent on the day.

Today’s headline number “was below the market consensus, but still not enough to push the euro lower,” said Valentin Marinov, head of European Group-of-10 currency strategy at Citigroup Inc. “Some negatives were in the euro price after the lower than expected German print yesterday. In addition, core CPI came in line. All that may limit the scope for further euro underperformance.”

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