European Central Bank Takes Next Step in Tapering Stimulus

A pigeon flies over the river Main with the European Central Bank in background, right, in Frankfurt, Germany, Wednesday, Sept.12, 2018. The governing council of the ECB will meet on Thursday. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

By DAVID McHUGH

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — The European Central Bank confirmed Thursday it is halving the size of its monthly bond-buying stimulus program as it scales back its post-crisis emergency efforts before stopping them at the end of the year.

The chief monetary authority for the 19 countries that use the euro said the purchases would be cut to 15 billion euros ($17.4 billion) a month from 30 billion euros after September.

The move was in effect already announced at the bank’s June 14 meeting. The bank set out its plans to halt the stimulus in December and postpone any interest rate increase until well after that. Analysts do not expect a rate hike until the second half of 2019 at the earliest.

ECB President Mario Draghi is expected to give his views on the economic outlook at a news conference later Thursday. Among the key threats to the eurozone economy is the trade dispute the U.S. has initiated with other major powers, particularly China. Investors are also watching whether Italy’s new populist government will break with Europe’s rules on public spending and rekindle a debt crisis in the region.

The central bank has said it will only change course if there’s an unexpected downturn or crisis. At the moment that seems unlikely. The eurozone grew 0.3 percent in the second quarter over the quarter before, and the European Commission forecasts 2.3 percent growth for the full year. Unemployment has fallen to 8.2 percent from over 12 percent in 2013 as the eurozone continues to heal from the Great Recession and the 2010-2012 debt crisis. The recovery remains uneven, however, with unemployment at 19.5 percent in Greece and 15.1 percent in Spain.

The ECB’s stimulus exit is part of a global trend: the withdrawal of stimulus from the rich world’s major monetary authorities, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan. They loosened monetary policy — lowering interest rates and pumping new money into the economy — to support the economy after the global financial crisis that deepened 10 years ago with the bankruptcy of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers. A crisis over debt in Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Cyprus and Italy further held back the 19 countries that use the euro as their currency.

Stimulus withdrawal should have wide-ranging effects. Low rates and bond purchases with newly created money lifted the prices of assets such as stocks and bonds. Raising rates and tightening monetary policy could make conservative holdings such as savings accounts, money market funds and certificates of deposit relatively more attractive compared for investors compared to riskier assets such as stocks.  That is why the ECB, Fed and other central banks are moving carefully to return rates to more normal levels.

Draghi and the ECB are moving slowly in withdrawing stimulus to avoid a repeat of the 2013 “taper tantrum.” Then-Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke said that an improving economy meant the Fed could start reducing its own bond purchase stimulus. Bond prices fell and market interest rates rose. The U.S. central bank subsequently made a gradual exit from the purchases and started raising interest rates without ruffling markets. The Fed has already raised its interest rate benchmark from near zero to 1.75 to 2.0 percent. The ECB has been much slower to withdraw stimulus because the economic recovery in Europe has been slower.

The ECB’s purchase of government and corporate bonds from banks is a way of pushing newly created money into the banking system, and hopefully into the economy. The aim has been to raise inflation from dangerously low levels near zero and help banks give more loans to businesses to boost growth.

Low interest rate benchmarks had the same goal. The ECB’s lending rate to banks is at a record low of zero, and it has imposed an unusual negative rate on deposits that it takes from commercial banks of minus 0.4 percent. That forces banks to pay a penalty for keeping excess funds at the central bank and provides an incentive to lend instead.

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