European Central Bank Bank holds key interest rates at record lows

The ECB's governing council voted to keep its headline "refi" rate at 0.0 percent and the deposit facility rate at minus 0.4 percent.

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The European Central Bank (ECB) is based in Frankfurt, western Germany play

The European Central Bank (ECB) is based in Frankfurt, western Germany

(AFP)
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The European Central Bank left interest rates at historic lows and mass bond-buying plans unchanged Thursday, leaving observers to search for hints from president Mario Draghi on when it will wind down the flood of cash.

The ECB's governing council -- made up of the 19 eurozone central bank governors and six board members -- voted to keep its headline "refi" rate at 0.0 percent and the deposit facility rate at minus 0.4 percent -- meaning banks have to pay to park their excess cash with the ECB.

With inflation close to the bank's target, critics' calls have grown louder for the ECB to raise rates and wind down its tens of billions of euros per month in government and corporate bond purchases.

Policies designed to boost growth and thereby inflation are no longer needed, opponents argue, and could be harmful if not revised.

All eyes will now be on ECB president Mario Draghi as he addresses reporters in a regular press conference from 1330 GMT.

Natixis bank economist Alan Lemangnen said "we expect Mario Draghi to recall that conditions for a durable adjustment of inflation are not gathered yet," leaving the bank committed to its present course of low rates and bond purchases.

Deflation fears past

The ECB launched its "quantitative easing" mass bond-buying programme in early 2015 after a scare over deflation -- a self-sustaining downward trend in prices and wages.

Some two years into the scheme, most economists agree that risk has receded.

Inflation in the single currency area stood at 2.0 percent in February, Eurostat figures showed last week, the first time since 2013 it has outstripped the ECB's mandate of "close to, but below 2.0 percent".

Many analysts expect new ECB staff forecasts to include predictions of higher inflation across the whole year for 2017 -- perhaps as high as 1.8 percent, just shy of the target.

But in January, Draghi said increased inflation would have to be consistent across the euro area, independent of the ECB's support, not temporary, and foreseeable into the medium term for the bank to consider it "durable".

For now, eliminating volatile oil and food prices shows a "core" inflation figure stable at around 0.9 percent in February -- far short of the long-term target.

"Support from our monetary policy measures is still needed," the ECB president told European Parliament lawmakers in February.

The bank's governing council agreed to "look through the volatility in short-term data" when deciding policy, according to minutes from its last meeting in January.

"President Draghi is likely to highlight the weakness of core inflation," economist Jennifer McKeown of Capital Economics said following the interest rate statement.

The ECB chief "will probably also reiterate concerns that political risks could dampen growth later this year," she went on.

Alert for hints

With critical elections in heavyweight eurozone nations France, the Netherlands and Germany in the coming months, the ECB will not want to add to financial market uncertainty by heading for the QE exit door.

In December, policymakers decided to extend the deadline on mass bond-buying from March to the end of 2017, albeit slowing the pace by 20 billion euros per month to 60 billion ($63.3 billion) from April.

But sunnier forecasts from the ECB's staff "will allow Mario Draghi to assert that the economic outlook has improved, and that risks are now more balanced," Natixis' Lemangnen said.

Some ECB watchers had suggested the bank might eliminate language about potentially lowering interest rates even further from its statement, as a first indication that it saw the economy on an upward path.

With no such change forthcoming, Draghi will aim to steer a path between managing expectations and excessive pessimism about the economy as he faces journalists' questions.

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