(Reuters) - The European Central Bank will extend its stimulus program beyond September 2016, according to economists in a Reuters poll who were less decided on whether it would spend more than the current 60 billion euros a month in bond purchases.
Launched just over six months ago, the ECB's quantitative easing program has so far done little to boost inflation, drive growth or even keep the euro low for a sustained period, the goals the central bank had hoped the stimulus would achieve.
Instead, forecasts for inflation at the end of 2015, 2016 and 2017 have either stayed constant or been downgraded in each Reuters poll since May, even as euro zone inflation slipped back below zero last month.
Official data on Friday is likely to confirm an early estimate of prices contracting 0.1 percent in September.
The latest survey of over 60 economists showed inflation would average 0.1 percent this year, rise to 1.1 percent in 2016 and further to 1.6 percent in 2017 - still much lower than the ECB's near 2 percent target.
"The foundations are still very shaky and the economy has flipped back to outright deflation in September. We think the ECB has to do another round of QE to get the exchange rate back down and that should boost inflation," said Florian Baier, economist at Fathom Consulting.
The median probability of the ECB extending QE stood at 70 percent from those economists who answered the question, while the likelihood of increased monthly purchases over the next six months was a still-significant 40 percent.
And the consensus from a smaller sample of economists showed the total size of the ECB's QE program would rise to 1.52 trillion euros from the current 1.1 trillion euros target.
ECB Governing Council member Ewald Nowotny became the latest policymaker on Thursday to call for new measures to boost price growth.
A slight majority of economists in the poll seem to share that assessment. Seventeen of 31 respondents in the survey who responded to the question answered "No" when asked if the ECB was in control of euro area inflation.
A meaningful rise in inflation is contingent on a few major factors - higher oil prices, which have slumped by half over the past year, increased demand from businesses and consumers, and a weaker euro.
But oil prices are not expected to climb substantially over the coming year, while high unemployment in the euro area - two out of ten people don't have jobs in Spain - is likely to keep a lid on consumer spending. [O/POLL]
The euro has weakened over 5 percent since January and is expected to fall some more over the coming year but its prospects hinge on the U.S. dollar, which is rallying on hopes the Federal Reserve will soon raise rates. [EUR/POLL]
When that hike will come is still unclear and while economists predict December, they are not convinced. [ECILT/US]
Among the top concerns for Fed Chair Janet Yellen, apart from weak job growth and low inflation in the U.S., is China's economic growth, which is most recently predicted to slow to 6.8 percent in 2015 and 6.5 percent next year. [ECILT/CN]
China is a major importer of finished goods from euro zone countries, most notably Germany, and a slowdown there is likely to have significant impact on growth in the monetary bloc.
Economists predict the euro zone economy will grow 0.4 percent in each quarter until the end of next year and average 1.5 percent in 2015, followed by 1.7 percent in 2016 and 2017.
In Germany, economists expect a surge in imports to surpass exports this year and next, meaning foreign trade is unlikely to make a strong contribution to growth, if any at all.
They downgraded growth forecasts for Germany by a notch to 1.7 percent this year and 1.8 percent next.
For the euro zone's number two economy, France, forecasters broadly share government predictions, expecting 1.1 percent GDP growth in 2015, 1.4 percent in 2016 and 1.6 percent in 2017. The unemployment rate is expected to dip to 10.2 percent in 2016 from 10.3 percent this year, and fall to 10.0 percent in 2017.
Italy's economy will recover from a three-year slump this year at a slightly faster rate than expected earlier, growing by 0.8 percent in 2015, but still lower than the government target of 0.9 percent.
Only Ireland's and Spain's economies are expected to grow more rapidly, at even faster rates than Germany. But the Irish economy is roughly just one-twentieth the size of Germany's and Spain is about one-third.
Additional reporting and polling by Khushboo Mittal and Hari Kishan in BENGALURU, Michael Nienaber in BERLIN, Brial Love and Yannin Le Guernigou in PARIS, Viviana Venturi in MILAN, Steve Scherer in ROME; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt