ECB to ring in 2012 with rates on hold

2012-01-08 11:55

Frankfurt - The European Central Bank, after cutting interest rates for the past two months, is unlikely to do so again this month, analysts say, but additional cuts could still be on the cards later this year.

With a raft of recently surprising positive economic data, notably in Europe's economic powerhouse Germany, the bank at its first meeting of 2012 on Thursday is expected to wait and see how its past moves to prevent a credit crunch and boost the economy in the 17 countries are actually having an effect.

Last month - on the same day that EU leaders met in Brussels in what was seen as a make-or-break crisis summit - the ECB brought eurozone borrowing costs back down to their previous historical low of 1.0%, effectively reversing this year's two earlier rate hikes.

On top of that, it offered banks in the region an unlimited pool of liquidity by loosening collateral rules, cutting the minimum reserve ratio and launching new three-year loans at super-cheap rates.

"Given the magnitude of these measures, it is highly unlikely that the ECB will embark on additional moves at its upcoming meeting," said Commerzbank economist Michael Schubert.

Austrian central bank chief Ewald Nowotny, who sits on the ECB's governing council, also recently warned against "frequently churning out new ideas" without checking the impact of earlier moves, which in themselves constituted a "massive step".

In fact, not all measures had already been implemented, Schubert noted.

The cut in the reserve ratio would not become effective before January 18 and the next three-year tender was only scheduled for the end of February.

Howard Archer, economist at IHS Global Insight, pointed out that the decision to cut rates in December was not by consensus, as is traditionally the case with the ECB, but by a majority vote, meaning some council members opposed it.

This "indicates that the ECB will probably be reluctant to trim interest rates again as soon as in January," Archer said.

He predicted the ECB would trim interest rates by a further quarter point to 0.75% "in the first quarter... and could very well come down as low as 0.50% in the second quarter of 2012."

Jonathan Loynes, chief European economist at Capital Economics in London, similarly believes that "after two consecutive cuts in interest rates, the ECB looks set to hold fire at its first policy meeting of 2012 on January 12."

Not only did ECB chief Mario Draghi "disclose at the post-meeting press conference that December's decision was not unanimous, but the new staff economic forecasts still saw the risks to the inflation outlook as 'broadly balanced'," Loynes said.

The ECB also sees its role in the long-running debt crisis as fire-fighter while it insists that it is up to national governments to find a long-lasting and sustainable solution.

Thus, while further interest rate cuts "are still possible in later months, Draghi is likely once again to dampen expectations that the ECB will take more aggressive action to address the debt crisis by significantly ramping up its purchases of peripheral sovereign debt," Loynes argued.

The ECB's bond-buying programme, launched under the previous head, Frenchman Jean-Claude Trichet, has been one of its most controversial moves since the start of the crisis, even causing two prominent German ECB members, including chief economist Juergen Stark, to quit.

The ECB council appears divided on the issue.

Bundesbank president Jens Weidmann has frequently reiterated his opposition, but Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi of Italy, who left the bank at the end of last year, said he did "not understand the quasi-religious discussions about quantitative easing."

In his view, there are no deflation risks at present, but if conditions changed, the ECB would in fact have the obligation to act, Bini-Smaghi said.

Commerzbank's Schubert concluded that "looking ahead... the ECB is likely to keep the door open to all options."