September 11, 2017 / 8:27 AM / 11 days ago

ECB officials pave way for gradual policy tightening

Benoit Coeure, board member of the European Central Bank (ECB), is photographed during an interview with Reuters journalists at the ECB headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany, May 17, 2017. Picture taken May 17, 2017. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach/Files

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Six European Central Bank policymakers prepared the ground on Monday for a gradual roll-back of the ECB’s aggressive monetary stimulus, in light of stronger economic growth in the euro zone.

After 2-1/2 years of unprecedented money printing, the ECB is preparing to dial back its 2.3 trillion euros bond-buying programme, which has helped boost growth in the euro zone but is also blamed for creating real estate and financial bubbles.

ECB board directors Sabine Lautenschlaeger, Yves Mersch and Benoit Coeure, and the central bank governors of the Netherlands, Austria and Estonia all discussed the prospect on Monday of a gradual reduction in ECB support.

“The economy in the euro area is doing better and the conditions are in place for inflation to pick up and move steadily towards our goal,” Lautenschlaeger said in a written contribution to the Eurofi financial forum, due to take place in Tallinn on Sept. 13-15.

“We have to be prepared to take tough decisions in good time. We also have to adapt our communications accordingly,” said Lautenschlaeger, considered one of the top policy hawks on the rate setting Governing Council.

Euro zone price growth has stabilised just above 1 percent, stemming fears of deflation, or a sustained drop in prices. Yet it is still far from the ECB’s target of almost 2 percent.

Sources have told Reuters ECB rate-setters agreed last week to start reducing the bond purchases, with a decision likely at their next policy meeting on Oct. 26.

Coeure, however, cautioned that ECB’s policy was set to remain easy for a long time and played down a drag on inflation from a recent rally in the euro.

“Compared with past demand shocks, policy will remain more accommodative for longer, thereby likely muting further the pass-through of any growth-driven exchange rate appreciation,” Coeure told a conference in Frankfurt.

“And with the current recovery in the euro area being largely driven by domestic demand, euro strength may also have less of an impact on growth than, for example, after the Great Financial Crisis,” he added.

GRADUAL

Rate setters have refrained from changing policy thus far largely out of fear that this would push up the euro and borrowing costs in the bloc, undoing some of the ECB’s stimulus efforts.

Seeking to downplay these fears, Mersch, Estonian governor Ardo Hansson and his Austrian colleague Ewald Nowotny said any reduction would be gradual.

“Too much emphasis has been put on the fears of policy normalisation,” Hansson said in his message to Eurofi.

“The process of normalisation of policy stance is very gradual and in fact, it has been already started.”

Dutch central bank governor Klaas Knot emphasised in his own contribution the risk that easy cash would fuel bubbles and reckless behaviour on financial markets.

The ECB targets inflation at almost 2 percent over the ‘medium term’, an undefined concept that is influenced by the size of any inflation shock.

The bank has undershot its price growth target for four and a half years and will not see inflation back towards 2 percent before 2020, its new projections from last week showed.

Reporting by Balazs Koranyi; Editing by Toby Chopra

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