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ECB Hikes by Half-Point and Signals Same Again in March

ECB Hikes by Half-Point and Signals Same Again in March
Christine Lagarde on 2 February 2023. Lagarde has told European Union leaders that the region’s banking sector is strong, according to people familiar with the matter.

The European Central Bank lifted interest rates by a half-point, with President Christine Lagarde saying another such move is almost certain next month, despite conceding that the inflation outlook is improving.

Policymakers, as expected, raised the deposit rate to 2.5%, the highest since 2008. Lagarde warned that the most aggressive bout of monetary tightening in ECB history isn’t done — even as energy prices plunge and the Federal Reserve moderates the pace of its own hikes.

In a statement, the Governing Council said it “intends” to raise rates by another 50 basis points at its March meeting, then “evaluate the subsequent path of its monetary policy.”

ECB Hikes Rates by Half Point at First Meeting of 2023
 | About a third of global decisions have kept borrowing costs unchanged

Lagarde said risks to the growth and inflation outlook have become more balanced, calling the economy more resilient than expected. A clearer picture will emerge in March, when new quarterly economic projections are available that account for the recent pullback in energy prices.

While conceding that the ECB’s intention to raise by another half-point next month isn’t “irrevocable,” she also said it’s very likely to transpire.

“I can’t think of scenarios, unless they were quite extreme, where that would not happen,” she told reporters in Frankfurt. “Our determination to reach 2% medium-term inflation should not be doubted. Nor should be doubted the fact that once we are in restrictive territory we will want to stay there sufficiently.”

Lagarde also underscored that rate hikes are likely to persist beyond next month.

“We know that we have ground to cover,” she said. “We know that we are not done.”

  • Follow the ECB TLIV blog here

Euro-area bonds extended gains on speculation that the pace of monetary tightening will slow. Money markets added to bets for a half-point increase in March though trimmed wagers on the peak of the tightening cycle to below 3.5%.

Alongside its commitment on rates, the ECB also gave more details on how it intends to shrink its €5 trillion ($5.4 trillion) bond portfolio, reaffirming a monthly cap of €15 billion between March and June on maturing debt that’s allowed to expire.

Read more: ECB Publishes More Details of Quantitative Tightening Plan

Thursday’s announcement follows a slew of encouraging economic data, showing a further retreat in inflation and receding chances of a recession in the 20-member euro zone — despite the war still raging on its doorstep.

It’s been a busy week for central banks. As well as Wednesday’s decision by the Fed to lift rates by a smaller, quarter-point increment, the Bank of England delivered another half-point hike earlier today.

Even after a steeper-than-anticipated slowdown in January, euro-area inflation — at 8.5% — remains more than four times the ECB’s 2% target. What’s more, a measure of underlying price pressures is stuck at a record.

Stubborn core inflation has prompted hawks like Netherlands central bank chief Klaas Knot and Austria’s Robert Holzmann to speculate whether half-point steps should persist into the second quarter — especially as higher borrowing costs are yet to hurt the economy noticeably.

But doves on the Governing Council, who include Italy’s Ignazio Visco and Greece’s Yannis Stournaras, are signaling a preference for more gradual steps, starting as early as March.

They can point to a warm weather-induced drop in natural gas prices, which spiked after Russia invaded Ukraine. The recently announced pause in the Bank of Canada’s tightening cycle gives them further ammunition.

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