ECB policymakers back jumbo rate hike, differ on balance sheet cut

75bps rate hike in October in focus; Running down bond portfolio could be discussed soon; Inflation in Sept to hit new record high

By Reuters

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Sunflowers and the skyline of Frankfurt with the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) are seen as the sun sets, in Frankfurt, Germany. — Reuters
Sunflowers and the skyline of Frankfurt with the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB) are seen as the sun sets, in Frankfurt, Germany. — Reuters

Published: Thu 29 Sep 2022, 9:38 PM

European Central Bank policymakers continued to line up behind another big interest rate hike as inflation is set to hit a new record high, but differed on whether it was time to think about mopping up cash from the economy.

The ECB has raised rates by a combined 125 basis points over its past two meetings and promised further increases as inflation rises towards 10 per cent and longer-term expectations edge above its two per cent target.

Strengthening the case for another 75-basis-point increase, regional inflation data across Germany on Thursday pointed to another surge in prices, suggesting that double digit inflation, the highest in around a half a century, is within reach for the currency bloc’s biggest economy.

“My choice would be 75 (basis points),” ECB policymaker Gediminas Simkus told Bloomberg TV on the sidelines of a conference in Vilnius. “I understand a couple of options may be on the table but 50 is the minimum.”

The Lithuanian governor also said the ECB should also start talks “as soon as possible” on reducing its balance sheet, a view echoed by his Estonian peer Madis Maller at the same event.

This would probably be done by not replacing some of the trillion euros’ worth of bonds the ECB bought over the past decade - when it was trying to raise price growth that was too low - as they mature.

But Portugal’s Mario Centeno and Spain’s Pablo Hernandez de Cos pushed back on that idea, fearing it would destabilise the bond market.

“Quantitative tightening could potentially cause market turmoil,” de Cos said in a speech in Bilbao. “This could imperil the policy normalisation path at a time in which all our efforts should be focused on it.”

While few governors ventured to estimate where interest rate hikes could end, de Cos said that models suggest a significantly lower terminal rate than markets now expect.

“On the basis of current information, the median terminal rate value across models is at 2.25 per cent- 2.50 per cent,” de Cos said.

Markets currently expect rates to hit two per cent by the end of the year then rise to around three per cent next spring.

De Cos also said that if the ECB started to run down its balance sheet sooner than markets now expect, that would lower the terminal rate, which suggests a trade off between rate hikes and balance sheet operations.

Rate hike talk is intensifying even as recession fears rise. The European Commission’s economic sentiment indicator out on Thursday fell more sharply than feared, reinforcing expectations that the bloc could be in recession by the fourth quarter.

Although the euro zone central bank’s next policy meeting is almost a month away, ECB policymakers Peter Kazimir and Robert Holzmann have both come out in favour of a 75bps rate increase. Finland’s Olli Rehn listed 75bps as one of the acceptable options and Estonia Madis Maller said that a significant step in the “same ballpark” as the previous two moves was needed.

The ECB has said it will keep on raising its 0.75% deposit rate at least until it hits the neutral or natural level, an undefined rate that no longer stimulates growth but does not restrict it.

While the neutral level is most often referred to as a range rather than an exact level, most economists and policymakers appear to put it in the 1.5 per cent to two per cent range. — Reuters

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