European Central Bank slows rate hikes but vows more ahead

AP , Thursday 15 Dec 2022

The European Central Bank slowed its record pace of interest rate hikes only slightly Thursday, joining the U.S. Federal Reserve and other central banks around the world in reinforcing an inflation crackdown while glimpsing headway against the high prices that are plaguing consumers.

The European Central Bank (ECB) is pictured prior to a news conference following the meeting of the governing council of the ECB in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on December 15, 2022. AFP


The ECB, Bank of England, and Swiss National Bank dialed back to half-point increases from three-quarters Thursday, as did the Fed a day earlier in a blitz of central bank action this week.

The global campaign against soaring consumer prices has slowed somewhat as inflation has made small declines from painfully high levels.

But officials are underlining that inflation is not yet corralled from decade highs and that more rate hikes are coming to wrestle down price spikes for energy, food, and housing that are ravaging people's finances.

``We have made progress over the course of the last few months, but we have more ground to cover, and we have longer to go, and we are in for a long game,'' Bank President Christine Lagarde said at a news conference.

That means the bank expects to keep raising rates by half a point ``for a period of time,`` she said. ``We judge that interest rates will still have to rise significantly at a steady pace to reach levels that are sufficiently restrictive to ensure a timely return of inflation to our 2% medium-term target.''

Fed Chair Jerome Powell similarly warned there is ``a long way to go'' to control U.S. inflation. The comments took a bite from the stock market as investors hoping for a reprieve from sharply higher borrowing costs got a message from central banks Wednesday and Thursday: Not today.

Inflation in the 19 countries that use the euro currency eased to 10% in November from 10.6% in October, the first drop since June 2021. ECB officials say it's too early to say the pace has peaked, with high energy prices threatening a recession in Europe.

The ECB's hike follows record increases of three-quarters of a point in July and October. Half-point hikes are still bigger than the usual moves before the recent outburst of inflation, triggered by the rebound from the pandemic and Russia's war in Ukraine pushing up food and energy prices.

One reason for the ECB sticking to a tough anti-inflation message: the growth outlook for the European economy has improved from what had been seen as a possible disaster.

The eurozone could face a recession that's ``short-lived and shallow,'' with economic output shrinking at the end of this year and the first three months of 2023, the bank said.

Two straight quarters of contraction is one definition of a recession, although the economists on the eurozone business cycle dating committee use a broader range of data such as unemployment and the depth of the downturn.

Despite energy prices surging after Russia cut off most natural gas shipments, the European Union succeeded in largely filling underground storage for the winter heating season.

That has eased concern about running low on gas, which is used for heating, industry and power generation, and reduced fears of rolling electricity blackouts and industrial shutoffs.

Interest rate increases are central banks' chief tool to fight inflation. Higher benchmarks are soon reflected in higher market borrowing costs for consumers looking for mortgages and businesses needing credit to operate or invest in new facilities.

More costly credit reduces demand for goods, and, in theory, also reduces price increases.

The flip side is that higher rates can slow economic growth, and that has become a concern in the U.S. and Europe. The slightly improved, or at least less disastrous, outlook for growth in the eurozone is seen as a green light for Lagarde and the ECB to keep their focus firmly on inflation.

Bank officials say getting tough now prevents inflation from becoming chronic and requiring even more painful medicine.

The ECB's benchmark rate for lending to banks stands at 2%, and its rate on deposits left overnight by commercial banks is 1.5%.

Between the July and October meetings, the bank raised both benchmarks by 2 percentage points in just three months, the fastest pace since the founding of the shared euro currency in 1999 and covering ground that took 18 months in early rate-raising cycles.

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