ECB under pressure to delay future rate hikes

By David Mchugh

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Aug. 4 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this July 7, 2011 file photo President of European Central Bank Jean-Claude Trichet gestures during a press conference in Frankfurt, Germany. Fears that Europe's economy may stall and continuing market pressure on indebted governments could force the European Central Bank to abandon a third interest rate increase that had been widely predicted for later this year.

Michael Probst, File, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

FRANKFURT, Germany — The European Central Bank is under pressure to signal on Thursday that it will hold back from further interest rate increases as markets fret about the worsening debt crisis and shaky growth.

The bank, the chief monetary authority for the 17 countries that use the euro, is not expected to raise the key refinancing rate from its current 1.5 percent at a meeting at its headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany.

President Jean-Claude Trichet's remarks will be scrutinized for signals about future rate moves and for the bank's view of the debt-market turmoil afflicting Spain and Italy.

Some economists think a rate increase expected for October's meeting may have to be delayed, for a month or into next year, because it could hurt growth and raise pressure on indebted economies.

The bank made quarter-point increases in April and July in an attempt to bring rates back to more normal levels from their lows during the financial crisis, and to keep inflation from creeping into Europe's economy.

Trouble is, growth prospects have darkened in recent days. Key global indicators have sagged and corporate executives have warned of difficult conditions ahead. Markets have also been roiled by worries about whether troubled governments can keep refinancing their debts.

The turbulence makes some economists think Trichet and the bank's 23-member governing council will back off.

Higher rates are its chief tool to keep prices from spiralling higher as the economy grows. But increases can weigh on growth if done when the economy is shaky. The bank thinks inflation will run at 2.5 percent this year, above its goal of just under 2 percent.

Marco Valli, chief eurozone economist at UniCredit, thinks inflation concerns will make the bank go ahead.

"Many things have changed since the July meeting, when Trichet's rhetoric hinted at a rate hike already in October," Valli said. "We stick to our October call, but the risk of a delay to December, if not later, is rising."

Eurozone officials tried to contain the continent's debt crisis by agreeing to give Greece a second, €109 billion ($156 billion) bailout on July 21, after a first bailout last year failed to put the country back on its feet financially. Ireland and Portugal have also needed bailouts after rising bond-market interest rates made it impossible for them to borrow money affordably.

Now bond markets are pushing bond interest yields higher on Spain and Italy's bonds. Those countries, however, are likely too big to be bailed out by the eurozone's rescue fund as it currently stands.

The ECB has a bond-buying program that would let it step into bond markets and support the prices of Italian and Spanish bonds, but its weekly disclosure of the program Monday indicated it made no use of it last week.

The key words traders will look for is the phrase that the ECB continues to "monitor very closely" the risks of rising prices. That indicates it is leaning toward higher rates but that a move is not imminent, giving Trichet and the council room to maneuver.

Use of the phrase "strong vigilance" against inflation indicates rates are expected to go up at the next monthly meeting.

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