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ECB keeps cheap money taps open to hit new inflation goal

·3-min read
The European Central Bank is set to unveil a new-look "forward guidance" statement that will be scoured by investors for clues about future moves on interest rates and bond purchases

The European Central Bank kept its vast stimulus for the eurozone in place Thursday, signalling ongoing support was needed to reach its newly revised, higher inflation target.

The 25-member governing council decided at their meeting to hold interest rates at historic lows, including a negative bank deposit rate, the ECB said in a statement.

Governors also made no tweaks to their 1.85-trillion-euro ($2.2 trillion) pandemic emergency bond-purchasing scheme (PEPP), which is the bank's main tool to help the region through the pandemic crisis.

The ECB's ultra-loose monetary policy measures are aimed at keeping credit cheap in the eurozone to spur lending and investment.

Thursday's meeting was the first since the ECB unveiled the results of an 18-month long strategic review of the bank's tools and goals -- its first since 2003.

The biggest change to come out of it was a revised inflation goal of two percent, compared with an earlier target of "close to, but below two percent" that has been out of reach for years.

The new goal was reflected in the ECB's "forward guidance" statement on Thursday, which details the latest monetary policy decisions and is closely scrutinised by markets for hints on future moves on rates and bond-buying.

The revamped statement pledged to keep interest rates at their current low levels until inflation is seen "durably" reaching the new two-percent target.

ECB President Christine Lagarde had promised earlier this month that the statement would be revamped to use clearer language.

Attention now shifts to Lagarde's 1230 GMT press conference in Frankfurt, where she will likely be quizzed on when the bank might start winding down the PEPP purchases.

Although some disagreement has emerged among ECB governors about when to start weaning the 19-nation currency club off the massive stimulus, observers say a recent rise in coronavirus cases is likely to delay discussion about tightening policies.

The "forward guidance" statement reiterated that PEPP will remain in place until at least March 2022, or until the ECB "judges that the coronavirus crisis phase is over".

A solid rebound is under way across the euro area, thanks to mass vaccinations and widespread reopenings.

But concern is growing about the rapid spread of the virus' Delta variant, which has fuelled a surge in new cases and forced several countries to reintroduce restrictions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday expressed concern about an "exponential growth" in Covid-19 infections, after a period of relatively low numbers that has allowed the country to ease curbs on hotels, restaurants, shops, pools and other businesses.

- Surging prices -

Lagarde can also expect to be quizzed about the bank's new inflation target, which she has described as a more "simple" and "symmetric" goal, meaning the bank will allow inflation to temporarily overshoot or undershoot before stepping in.

Eurozone inflation has been stubbornly low for years despite extraordinary stimulus efforts from the ECB.

But global consumer prices have surged in recent months, driven by one-off factors linked to the pandemic such as post-lockdown demand and supply chain bottlenecks.

Investors are on red alert over the price hikes owing to fears they could force policymakers to raise interest rates, hindering the post-Covid recovery.

Lagarde will likely reiterate that ECB plans to "look through" what is expected to be a temporary inflation increase, and reiterate that rates will be lower for longer.

This would put the ECB on a different path than the United States, where the Federal Reserve is edging closer to a rate hike.

The ECB expects inflation in the euro area to hit 1.9 percent this year, before falling back to 1.4 percent in 2023 -- far from the bank's target.

Many analysts say the ECB is likely to hold off making policy changes until the next meeting in September, when it will have fresh inflation and growth estimates that will paint a clearer picture of the Delta impact on economic activity.

mfp/dlc/wai

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