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ECB to play up eurozone strength at steady-as-she-goes meeting

By AFP
media Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank (ECB), warned at his last press conference in October that inflation would likely fall back over the winter, before recovering in early 2018 AFP/File

The European Central Bank will highlight economic strength in the eurozone in new forecasts Thursday, analysts expect, while avoiding spooking markets with talk of further cuts to its massive support for the economy.

ECB economic growth forecasts could be in for an upgrade this week, after the European Commission last month sharply lifted its predictions to a 2.2 percent expansion in 2017, the fastest pace in a decade.

Brussels predicts the 19-nation currency area will go on to add some 2.1 percent in 2018 and 1.9 percent in 2019.

Thursday will also bring the first look at the central bank's growth and inflation expectations for 2020.

While economic expansion has accelerated in recent months -- notching up 0.6 percent quarter-on-quarter between July and September -- inflation remains stubbornly short of the ECB target of just below 2.0 percent.

Policymakers at the Frankfurt institution agreed in October to slash its mass bond-buying from 60 billion euros ($71 billion) per month to 30 billion from January, as signs of recovery in the single currency area multiplied.

Along with historic low interest rates and cheap loans to banks, government and corporate bond purchases are designed to pump cash through the financial system and into the real economy of businesses and households, powering economic growth and inflation.

But price growth in the 19-nation single currency area slowed slightly to 1.4 percent in October, according to figures released just after the ECB's cutback in bond-buying.

Central bank president Mario Draghi warned at his last press conference in October that inflation would likely fall back over the winter, before recovering in early 2018.

"It is far from clear that the ECB's previously stated conditions of a self-sustaining and widespread rise have been met," Capital Economics analyst Jennifer McKeown pointed out.

Until inflation is obviously on track to meet the target most policymakers are loath to hint at further reducing their support to the economy or raising interest rates.

Doing so could boost the euro against other currencies, braking price growth by making imports cheaper and slowing economic growth by increasing prices for eurozone products abroad.

On Thursday, Draghi "will be reluctant to give any signals about future monetary policy that might prompt the currency to rise sharply again" as it did after an unusually upbeat speech in June, McKeown said.

- Inflation puzzle -

Like other major central banks, the ECB has been frustrated by economic growth failing to haul inflation up in its wake.

Earlier this year, Draghi said that higher wages would be the "linchpin" of increased prices.

For now, upward pressure on pay is weak as there are still reserves of people unemployed or eager to move from part-time to full-time hours, limiting workers' bargaining power.

Unemployment in the eurozone fell to 8.8 percent in October, its lowest level since January 2009.

Looking ahead to 2018, "another convincing year for the economy could put Europe in a totally new position," JP Morgan chief economist Bruce Kasman told German newspaper the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

If unemployment falls further and "core" inflation -- excluding volatile food and energy prices -- returns to an upward path, the ECB "could see a need to move" by further cutting bond-buying and ultimately increasing interest rates, he added.

"Raising interest rates wouldn't inevitably have a disruptive effect, but for now markets are very content and far from expecting interest rates to be normalised" from their present levels around or below zero, Kasman said.

That means "the bank will continue to stress for some time yet that interest rates will be kept on hold until well after asset purchases have ended," Capital Economics' McKeown said.

Any new announcements could be limited to racking up more corporate bonds on the ECB's shopping list, she added, as the central bank approaches limits on how much government debt it is allowed to hold.

 
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