ECB to Focus on Duration of Stimulus

ECB to Focus on Duration of Stimulus

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) -- Investors will look for clues Thursday on whether the European Central Bank will extend its 1.74 trillion euro ($1.91 trillion) bond-buying stimulus program beyond its earliest end date of March, 2017.

Analysts say the bank is unlikely to announce a decision at its meeting of its 25-member governing council, or to change its main interest rate benchmark, currently at a record low of zero. Any action is considered more likely in December.

ECB President Mario Draghi's remarks at his post-meeting news conference will be scrutinized for hints about the possibility of extending the 80 billion euros in monthly purchases.

The purchases pump new money into the financial system. The aim is to nudge up inflation from its current annual rate of 0.4 percent, far below the bank's goal of just under 2 percent. That's the level considered most consistent with a healthy economy.

The 19 countries that use the euro as their currency are enjoying a moderate recovery, with growth at 0.3 percent in the second quarter. But unemployment remains high at 10.1 percent and is falling only slowly.

The ECB has said the bond purchases will continue in any case until inflation rises to more acceptable levels from the current 0.4 percent, but has left the end date otherwise open.

Its other stimulus measures have included cutting to zero its benchmark refinancing rate, which means banks can borrow from it interest-free, offering unlimited cheap loans to banks, and cutting the rate on deposits banks leave with it overnight to minus 0.4 percent. That negative rate is in effect a tax intended to push banks to lend excess funds, not hoard them at the central bank.

Analysts think the bank may wait until its December meeting to make clear what it intends to do. At that meeting, Draghi and the other board members will have new forecasts compiled by ECB staff on the future course of inflation to help them make a decision on whether more monetary expansion is needed and if so how much.

Some analysts think that persistently low inflation will lead it to extend the bond purchases for at least six months. A written account of the September meeting showed that bank officials were still concerned inflation has not turned decisively upward, and that the economy still needed the current level of central bank help.

Both those worries argue for keeping the program going beyond March. The basic European Union treaty that created the euro and the ECB enshrines price stability — interpreted to mean avoiding both extremes of inflation or deflation — as the bank's first priority.

In September, Draghi addressed concerns the bank might run out of qualified bonds to purchase by saying that bank committees were working on ways to keep the program running smoothly. Analysts say the bank could adjust the rules of the bond purchase program to permit it to buy a wider variety of bonds. It could tweak limits on purchases per issue or per issuer, or it could adjust its rule of not buying anything yielding less than its minus 0.4 percent deposit rate.