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ECB stays put but warns about surge in infections

Balazs Koranyi and Francesco Canepa
·3-min read

By Balazs Koranyi and Francesco Canepa

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The European Central Bank warned on Thursday that a new surge in COVID-19 infections poses risks to the euro zone's recovery and reaffirmed its pledge to keep borrowing costs low to help the economy through the pandemic.

Having extended stimulus well into next year with a massive support package in December, ECB policymakers kept policy unchanged on Thursday, keen to let governments take over the task of keeping the euro zone economy afloat until normal business activity can resume.

But they warned about a new rise in infections and the ensuing restrictions to economic activity, saying they were prepared to provide even more support to the economy if needed.

"The renewed surge in coronavirus (COVID-19) infections and the restrictive and prolonged containment measures imposed in many euro area countries are disrupting economic activity," ECB President Christine Lagarde said in her opening statement.

Fresh lockdowns, a slow start to vaccinations across the 19 countries that use the euro, and the currency's strength will increase headwinds for exporters, challenging the ECB's forecasts of a robust recovery starting in the second quarter.

Lagarde saluted the start of vaccinations as "an important milestone" despite "some difficulty" and said the latest data was still in line with the ECB's forecasts.

She conceded that the strong euro, which hit a 2-1/2 year high against the dollar earlier this month, was putting a dampener on inflation and reaffirmed that the ECB would continue to monitor the exchange rate.

The euro has dropped 1% on a trade-weighted basis since the start of the year, but is up nearly 7% over the last 12 months. Against the U.S. dollar, that number rises to over 10%.

MORE STIMULUS?

Opening the door for more stimulus if needed, Lagarde confirmed the ECB would continue buying bonds until "it judges that the coronavirus crisis phase is over".

Lagarde also kept a closely watched reference to "downside" risks facing the euro zone economy, which has been a reliable indicator that the ECB saw policy easing as more likely than tightening.

But she signalled those risks were less acute, in part thanks to the recent Brexit deal.

"The news about the prospects for the global economy, the agreement on future EU-UK relations and the start of vaccination campaigns is encouraging," Lagarde said. "But the ongoing pandemic and its implications for economic and financial conditions continue to be sources of downside risk."

Lagarde conceded that the immediate future was challenging but argued that should not impact the longer term.

"Once the impact of the pandemic fades, a recovery in demand, supported by accommodative fiscal and monetary policies, will put upward pressure on inflation over the medium term," Lagarde said.

Benign market indicators support Lagarde's argument. Stocks are rising, interest rates are steady and government borrowing costs are trending lower, despite some political drama in Italy.

There is also around 1 trillion euros of untapped funds in the Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme (PEPP) to back up her pledge to keep borrowing costs at record lows.

The ECB has indicated it may not even need it to use it all.

"If favourable financing conditions can be maintained with asset purchase flows that do not exhaust the envelope over the net purchase horizon of the PEPP, the envelope need not be used in full," Lagarde said.

Recent economic history also favours the ECB. When most of the economy reopened last summer, activity rebounded more quickly than expected, indicating that firms were more resilient than had been feared.

Uncomfortably low inflation is set to remain a thorn in the ECB's side for years to come, however, even if surging oil demand helps put upward pressure on prices in 2021.

With Thursday's decision, the ECB's benchmark deposit rate remained at minus 0.5% while the overall quota for bond purchases under PEPP was maintained at 1.85 trillion euros.

(Editing by Catherine Evans)