ECB to hold rates but may discuss quicker reduction of bond portfolio

FRANKFURT: The European Central Bank (ECB) will keep interest rates unchanged at a record high today (Oct 26), snapping a 15-month streak of increases, but may discuss a quicker reduction of its oversized portfolio of government debt as it battles excessive inflation.

The ECB has lifted rates at each of its past 10 meetings to combat runaway prices but signalled a pause last month as the fastest pace of policy tightening is finally starting to have an impact. Price pressures are easing and the economy is slowing to a point that a recession may already be under way, making any further rate increases increasingly unlikely.

This is set to shift the debate to just how long rates need to stay at record highs, a tricky exercise as markets are already betting on the next move to be a cut, possibly in the second quarter of next year, a timeline some policymakers consider unrealistic.

Another complication is that rising energy costs could keep inflation under pressure just as growth falters, setting off opposing forces that could herald a damaging period of stagflation, or a period of high inflation and stagnating growth.

“We think the discussion is increasingly shifting towards the timing of a cut rather than whether there should be another hike,” Martin Wolburg, a senior economist at Generali Investments said.

“We are increasingly of the view that (the) fourth quarter could also be a quarter of receding output, so in the end the euro area has a certain probability of entering a recession and this will also leave its mark on monetary policy in the end,” he added.

Meeting in Athens for the first time in over a decade, the Governing Council is expected to have an easy time deciding on rates. The hard part will be what signals to send about future moves.

Some policymakers are keen for a so-called “hawkish pause”, or a guidance that keeps further rate increases firmly on the table, given that inflation is not expected to fall back to 2% until 2025 and turbulence in the Middle East could put upward pressure on energy costs.

Others argue that growth prospects are deteriorating so quickly that the ECB would be better served with a “neutral” guidance, emphasising data dependency.

Indeed, industry is in recession, sentiment indicators are pointing south, consumption is muted and even the labour market has started to soften.

An even tougher discussion will be whether to opt for an early reduction of bond holdings in the bank’s €1.7 trillion (RM8.6 trillion) Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme, as advocated by several policymakers.

The ECB has promised to reinvest all maturing debt in this scheme through the end of 2024 but some view this commitment as excessive given that the ECB is now tightening policy.

The complication is that the ECB uses these reinvestments to protect vulnerable economies like Italy, because it can skew purchases to insulate them from undue market volatility.

This suggests that any change in the scheme will be gradual, so the ECB can protect Italy as long as possible.

“We expect the ECB to push back against any abrupt decision to accelerate quantitative tightening in a context of rising macroeconomic, geopolitical and financial uncertainty,” Pictet Wealth Management economist Frederik Ducrozet said.

“Even if the ECB opted for ending PEPP reinvestments before the end of 2024 as currently planned, this would be largely symbolic and we would expect the ECB to retain the option to resume flexible interventions,” he added.

Another debate that may come up but is unlikely to gain traction is an increase in minimum reserve requirements for commercial banks.

Lenders must park a certain portion of their assets at the ECB for free and some policymakers want to increase this pool, since paying a 4% rate to already profitable lenders on the very liquidity created by ECB is boosting losses at the central bank.

Still, the ECB board has made clear that such a debate is premature and should only come up next spring when the central bank debates its overall operational framework. – Reuters