FRANKFURT, Germany – The European Central Bank lowered on Thursday its forecasts for Europe’s economic growth this year and next, but said it would press ahead with a carefully telegraphed plan to phase out easy money.
In a statement, the ECB said it expects to wind down its 2.5 trillion euro ($2.9 trillion) bond-buying program – known as quantitative easing, or QE – by year-end, confirming a plan outlined in June. The bank also expects to hold its benchmark interest rate at the record low of minus 0.4 percent at least through the summer of 2019.
“When we stop (buying bonds), this doesn’t mean our monetary policy stops being accommodative,” ECB President Mario Draghi said at a press conference, citing the low level of interest rates and forward guidance to keep them where they are for a long time.
Earlier Thursday, Bank of England policy makers struck a cautious note, voting unanimously to leave interest rates on hold at 0.75 percent despite strengthening growth and inflation. The bank highlighted concerns around the uncertainty that could be generated by Britain’s departure from the European Union next March.
ECB officials are facing a delicate task: They have started pivoting away from years of easy money, following the Federal Reserve, just as the eurozone economy has softened. The currency bloc is navigating headwinds ranging from Brexit to international trade tensions to vulnerabilities in the bloc’s neighbor, Turkey.
ECB officials initially blamed economic softness this year on one-off factors such as poor weather, but the weakness has extended into the third quarter. Industrial production data published on Wednesday showed an unexpected year-to-year decline. While the region’s inflation rate has risen to 2 percent, slightly above the ECB’s target, it is expected to drift down over the coming months.
The ECB said Thursday that it expects eurozone inflation to average 1.7 percent this year and the following two years. Economic growth is expected to come in at 2 percent this year, 1.8 percent next year and 1.7 percent in 2020. The projections for 2018 and 2019 were revised down slightly from the previous forecasts in June.
Recent data broadly supports the ECB’s expectation for broad-based economic growth and a gradual buildup in inflation, Draghi said, though he cautioned that risks related to trade protectionism, emerging-market weakness and volatility in financial markets “have gained more prominence recently.”
Analysts say the ECB is effectively on autopilot, however, pressing ahead with protracted plans to exit easy money in part because its options are limited: After years of aggressive stimulus, the bank would struggle to extend QE into next year under the program’s current rules.
The euro rose slightly against the dollar during Draghi’s press conference but remains close to its lowest level in a year. That reflects the ECB’s delay in raising interest rates even as the Fed is expected in late September to raise interest rates for a third time this year. German 10-year government bond yields have fallen this year to around 0.4 percent, while Italian 10-year bond yields have jumped to around 3 percent, underscoring frictions within the currency bloc.