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ECB keeps pouring in cheap money as virus woes persist

By AFP - Apr 22,2021 - Last updated at Apr 22,2021

The headquarters of the European Central Bank is pictured prior to a news conference following the meeting of the governing council of the ECB in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on January 23, 2020. (AFP photo)

FRANKFURT — The European Central Bank (ECB) on Thursday kept its massive pandemic-fighting stimulus package in place, in a bid to help Europe's ailing economies overcome the devastating impact of the coronavirus crisis.

After calming jittery markets last month by promising to "significantly" step up the pace of its pandemic emergency bond purchases, the ECB's governing council said such buys will keep going at the same accelerated rate.

ECB President Christine Lagarde, is likely to use her press conference to reiterate the message that there will be no premature end to "favourable financing conditions" until the crisis is deemed over and the rebound is firmly on track.

The Frankfurt institution on Thursday held interest rates at historic lows, including a deposit rate of -0.5 per cent -- meaning banks pay to store excess cash with the ECB.

The ECB's 1.85 trillion euro ($2.2 trillion) pandemic emergency bond purchasing programme (PEPP), set to run until March 2022, was also kept intact, although the council stressed it stood ready to "adjust all of its instruments, as appropriate", should it become necessary.

The goal of the ECB's measures, which also include super cheap loans for banks, is to keep borrowing costs low to encourage spending and investment in the 19-nation currency club in order to drive up growth and inflation.

Lagarde may also repeat her plea for eurozone governments to share the load through fiscal stimulus.

Those efforts were given a boost when a top German court on Wednesday threw out a legal challenge against the European Union's 750-billion-euro recovery fund, paving the way for its ratification.

Lagarde has frequently called for the landmark fund to be implemented, saying it has a "key role" to play in nursing the region back to health.


Looking past inflation 



The former French finance minister and ex-head of the International Monetary Fund can also expect to be quizzed about the future pace of asset purchases.

Following last month's pledge to accelerate debt purchases in response to rising bond yields, the ECB's weekly PEPP purchases have averaged 17 billion euros, compared to around 12 billion in January and February.

While investors are keen for any insight into the future rhythm of the purchases and how the ECB plans to eventually wind down the scheme, observers believe Lagarde will keep her cards close to her chest.

"Silence is golden," said ING bank economist Carsten Brzeski, adding that the next meeting on June 10 should bring more clarity, when the ECB unveils new growth and inflation forecasts.

In quarterly projections published in March, the ECB surprised observers by slightly raising its 2021 growth forecast from 3.9 to 4.0 per cent, fuelled by optimism about Europe's Covid-19 vaccine rollout and the global economic rebound.

While the speed of inoculations has picked up across the bloc in recent weeks after a bumpy start, many countries are battling the spread of more contagious virus variants, including strains first detected in Britain and South Africa.

Top eurozone economies Germany, France and Spain are among those that have extended or reimposed shutdowns and travel curbs to rein in Covid cases, weighing on second-quarter growth prospects.

"In June, the ECB and markets will have a much better idea about the severity of the current wave of infections and restrictions as well as the progress of the vaccination campaign and its impact on the economic outlook," said Schmieding.

Eurozone inflation, meanwhile, continued its upward trend and climbed to 1.3 per cent in March, powered in part by higher energy prices.

Economists see inflation bounding even higher in the months ahead, possibly exceeding the ECB's long-out-of-reach inflation target of "close to, but below" 2.0 per cent.

Lagarde, however, stressed in March that price growth is being driven by "temporary factors" linked to the pandemic, such as pent-up consumer demand as virus curbs are relaxed.

The ECB "will see through that", she said, and stick with its ultra-loose monetary policy so long as underlying inflation remains weak.


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