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ECB's top three shareholders chart different paths for rates

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: European flags are seen in front of the ECB building, in Frankfurt

By Francesco Canepa and Balazs Koranyi

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The European Central Bank's top three shareholders charted different paths for interest rates on Wednesday, in a preview of the difficult debate awaiting the ECB in the coming weeks.

The central bank governors of Germany, France and Italy, which have the three biggest stakes in the ECB, aired their views as data showed inflation unexpectedly rose in several euro zone economies this month, fuelling investor bets on more ECB hikes.

Bundesbank President Joachim Nagel appeared to back those expectations, anticipating "further significant interest rate steps" after March, when the ECB has already pencilled an increase worth half a percentage point.

"The interest rate step announced for March will not be the last," Nagel, a policy hawk who favours higher rates, said in a speech. "Further significant interest rate steps might even be necessary afterwards, too."

Money markets were expecting the ECB deposit rate to peak at 4% in December, from 2.5% at present, pricing in another 50-basis point increase in May and then a steady grind higher in the remainder of the year.

Banque de France governor Francois Villeroy de Galhau, a centrist, was more cautious, saying the ECB should now become "more gradual" in raising rates and wrap up by September at the latest.

"We must not claim victory too quickly - but (we should be) more gradual and more pragmatic in the pace of the next hikes," Villeroy told French lawmakers.


Ignazio Visco, a policy dove who heads the Bank of Italy, echoed Villeroy's call for more gradual hikes but ventured further by saying that inflation was showing early signs of decelerating.

"Data on market- and survey-based inflation expectations – including their recent decline at short horizons and their decreasing profile ‒ and the marked deceleration of prices on a three-month annualised basis may call into question the persistence of inflation at high levels in the euro area, reinforcing the arguments in favour of gradual monetary normalisation," he told an audience in Frankfurt.

The ECB has raised rates by 300 basis points since July in a bid to bring inflation, which hit double digits late last year, back to its 2% target.

The latest data shows it has its work cut out.

Inflation in France, Spain and Germany all exceeded expectations last month, suggesting that the euro zone number, to be published on Thursday, could be more than half a percentage points above the 8.2% projection of economists.

And underlying inflation, which filters out volatile food and food prices, also showed no signs of easing - a key argument the hawks are likely to use to push for more hikes.

Based on national data out already, Barclays predicted that underlying inflation could accelerate to 5.4% from 5.3%.

(Additional reporting by Marine Strauss in Paris; Editing by Alex Richardson)