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ECB holds rates while waiting for stimulus to sink in

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[November 06, 2014]  By Eva Taylor

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The European Central Bank kept interest rates at record lows at it policy meeting on Thursday, waiting to see how stimulus measures laid out over the summer unfold.

Focus now shifts to the after-meeting news conference where market participants seek clues from ECB President Mario Draghi on how close the ECB is to launching more aggressive easing steps, such as quantitative easing (QE) - or printing money to buy large amounts of government bonds.

There has been mounting discomfort among Governing Council members over Draghi's leadership style and any indication on how strong the president's backing in the Council is will be crucial for future policy moves.

Reuters reported on Tuesday national central bankers in the euro area planned to challenge Draghi over his earlier mention of a balance sheet target for how much money the ECB plans to pump into the economy with its latest stimulus.

"It will be exciting today after the reported dispute in the Governing Council. Will Draghi mention the balance sheet target again? If he does not, it would indicate that QE is still distant, because there is more resistance than we thought," said Johannes Mayr, economist at BayernLB.

 

Italian Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan swung in behind Draghi on Thursday, saying he had high regard for the former governor of the Bank of Italy.

"As I have always said, I have the utmost regard for Mario Draghi but I don't want to get into questions that have an air of gossip about them," Padoan said in Brussels, where he was attending a meeting of euro zone finance ministers.

MEAGER GROWTH PROSPECTS

The November policy meeting takes place against a backdrop of meager growth prospects for the euro zone, but little-to-no action is expected on further stimulus despite growing pressure.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) on Thursday called on the ECB to live up to a promise "to do what ever it takes" to revive its economy and begin purchasing government bonds.

"We think the ECB is in a 'wait and see' mode now and do not expect new policy measures or major new guidance to be provided," said UBS economist Reinhard Cluse.

To keep the euro zone from slipping into deflation, the ECB has started pumping more money into the banking system through purchases of private debt and offers of long-term loans, aiming to boost its balance sheet by up to 1 trillion euros.

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There is growing doubt whether its current measures will be enough, but the ECB is expected to wait until it gets a clearer view of the economy and the impact of its asset purchases and four-year loans to banks before adding further stimulus.

"My sense is that it's not sufficient and that we will see the ECB stepping up and buying corporate bonds," said Moody's Analytics chief economist Mark Zandi, pointing to next year.

Many economists are already looking towards December when the ECB will update its economic projections.

ECB staff in September forecast growth of 0.9 percent this year and 1.6 percent in 2015, with inflation reaching 1.4 percent in 2016 - below its medium term target of just under 2 percent. Inflation stood at 0.4 percent in October.

"The ECB will have to slash its staff projections for growth and inflation substantially in December. That will be a strong argument for loosening policy further," said Berenberg chief economist Holger Schmieding.

He pointed to a probability of at least 60 percent that the ECB would step up its stimulus in December, probably by widening its asset purchases to include corporate bonds.

More drastic measures in the form of outright purchases of sovereign bonds - as deployed by other major central banks to boost their economies - still remain distant in the euro zone, mainly due to political hurdles, especially in Germany.

(Additional reporting James Mackenzie, Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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