The European Central Bank could indicate as soon as March that it is mulling an earlier end to its stimulus program, minutes of the bank’s last policy meeting suggested Thursday.
According to the minutes of the Jan. 25 meeting, the ECB rate-setters said the “language pertaining to the monetary policy could be revisited early this year.”
That suggests the 25-member governing council, which sets interest rates for the 19 countries that use the euro as currency, could indicate that the stimulus may come to an end sooner than they have so far indicated. Their next scheduled policy announcement is on March 8.
In Britain, meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics said Thursday that the British economy expanded by a quarterly rate of 0.4%, down from the initial estimate of 0.5%. The downgrade was largely due to lower than anticipated industrial production.
The downgrade reduced overall 2017 growth to a five-year low of 1.7%, from the previously forecast 1.8%, and that means Britain is one of the slowest-growing Group of Seven economies. Before the June 2016 vote to leave the European Union, it had for years been one of the fastest-growing.
Eurozone CPI remains below 2% goal
As well as slashing interest rates, including its main one to zero, the ECB is purchasing 30 billion euros (US$37 billion) worth of bonds a month in financial markets to keep a lid on borrowing costs. Those purchases are due to run until the end of September “or beyond, if necessary” dependent on inflation getting back toward the bank’s aim.
Despite a rebounding eurozone economy, consumer price inflation remains below the goal of just below 2%. In the year to January, inflation was running at only 1.3%.
According to the minutes, “some members expressed a preference for dropping the easing bias” at the January meeting as a “tangible reflection of reinforced confidence in a sustained adjustment of the path of inflation.”
However, “it was concluded that such an adjustment was premature and not yet justified by the stronger confidence.”
The euro rose modestly after the publication of the minutes, trading 0.2% higher at $1.2310.
Carsten Brzeski, an economist at ING, thinks the majority of the ECB’s policymaking panel “still opposes an abrupt end” to the stimulus in September and will opt to tread carefully in the months ahead.
“As soon as the ECB would put an end date on its QE program, speculations about the timing of the first rate hike will start to heat up, leading to a further tightening of monetary and financial conditions in the eurozone,” he said.
Brexit hits U.K. consumers and businesses
The British economy did not grow as strongly as initially thought during 2017 as consumers and businesses were held back by factors directly related to Brexit.
Though Brexit isn’t officially due to take place until March 2019, the vote to leave the European Union has clearly hit consumers and businesses.
The former have been constrained by the sharp rise in inflation that was due to the fall in the pound following the referendum, which raised the cost of imported goods, notably food and energy. The increase in inflation has eaten into their wages, reducing their purchasing power.
In a statement accompanying Thursday’s downgrade, agency statistician Darren Morgan noted that a number of consumer-facing industries slowed “as price rises led to household budgets being squeezed.”
That squeeze on household incomes is due to end this year, according to Bank of England Governor Mark Carney, as wage rises are forecast to start to outstrip inflation. Currently, wages are growing about 2.5% on average against price increases of about 3%.
Meanwhile, businesses have taken a more cautious approach on investment as they seek clarity over the post-Brexit economic landscape. Business investment during the fourth quarter was flat when compared to the year before, a sign of the impact of Brexit uncertainty.
Though the impact of the falling pound is set to diminish over the year, Brexit is still the biggest cloud over the economic horizon this year.
“The effect of the uncertainty around future trading relationships is having an impact on the demand side of the economy,” Carney told lawmakers Wednesday. “I don’t think that’s controversial, it’s pretty clear […] We have moved from the top of the pack to the bottom.”
The pound remained under pressure after Thursday’s downgrade, trading 0.2% lower at $1.3885 as traders mull whether it may ease the pressure on the Bank of England to increase interest rates again as soon as May amid above-target inflation. Last November, the bank raised its main interest rate by a quarter point to 0.5%, its first increase in a decade.
“All told, then, the latest GDP data suggest that the economy remains in a fragile state and does not need to be cooled with another rate rise as soon as May,” said Samuel Tombs, chief U.K. economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.