Euro-Area Prices Decline Most in Year as ECB Mulls Easing

  • Inflation rate at minus 0.2% in February vs 0% forecast
  • ECB to review stimulus program at March 9-10 meeting

The inflation picture in the euro area deteriorated in February, giving European Central Bank policy makers more bad news to digest just a week before their next meeting.

Consumer prices in the 19-nation bloc declined to minus 0.2 percent from a positive reading of 0.3 percent in January, according to data published Monday. Core inflation, which strips out volatile elements such as food and energy, was at 0.7 percent, down from 1 percent in the prior month. Those are the worst readings since February and April of last year, respectively.

The deteriorating inflation backdrop comes just over a week before ECB policy makers led by President Mario Draghi gather in Frankfurt for a meeting at which they’ve said they’ll review if their current stimulus is enough. Price growth has fallen short of the central bank’s goal of just below 2 percent for three years amid a drop in oil prices, pushing the central bank to take more and more aggressive action in response.

“Not only headline but also core inflation is much lower than the ECB has been projecting -- it is not just energy, it is a wider problem reflecting second round effects and weak demand,” said Nick Kounis, head of macro research at ABN Amro Bank NV in Amsterdam. “This will provide the ECB with an extra push to deliver more aggressive easing than expected at its March meeting.”

Both inflation measures were weaker than economists had forecast. The main rate was projected to come in at zero, while the core rate was expected to slip to 0.9 percent.

The euro fell as low as $1.0897 after the report, down 0.3 percent in the day. It traded at $1.0906 at 11:42 a.m. in Frankfurt.

Disappointing Data

“If we look at Europe at the moment, the danger we face is without any doubt deflation not inflation,” ECB Governing Council member Francois Villeroy de Galhau said in an interview published on Sunday. “If the low energy prices have sustainable long-term effects, we have to act. That seems to be the case, but we will see in March.”

The euro-wide number follows disappointing data on Friday from Germany, France and Spain. In Germany, the European Union-harmonized inflation rate dropped to minus 0.2 percent from 0.4 percent. The rate in France fell to minus 0.1 percent, while Spanish prices slid 0.9 percent. All readings were worse than economists had forecast. Data for Italy on Monday showed a reading of minus 0.2 percent, also missing projections.

To kickstart a revival in inflation, the ECB has already cut its deposit rate to minus 0.3 percent and is pumping 60 billion euros ($66 billion) a month into the economy via asset purchases. Central bank officials have said they are ready to expand stimulus if needed to counter the risk of low inflation becoming entrenched in the region’s economy.

This puts the spotlight on appearances from policy makers before the ECB enters its week-long quiet period ahead of the March 10 meeting. Executive Board members Sabine Lautenschlaeger and Benoit Coeure are both slated this week; so are Governing Council members Klaas Knot and Villeroy de Galhau.

“With inflation expectations low and falling, the threat of a more persistent bout of deflation remains very real,” Jessica Hinds, an economist at Capital Economics Ltd. in London wrote in a client note before the data. “As such, the ECB cannot afford to disappoint expectations of more stimulus in March.”

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