Mario Draghi warned that the European Central Bank will remain cautious even as he put his signature stimulus measure on the road toward an exit.
The ECB plans to dial down bond buying from January, six years into the president’s term, marking a new phase after a series of unprecedented actions to prevent the breakup of the euro area and stave off deflation. In little over two months, officials will take a step toward ending one of their more controversial policy tools by cutting monthly purchases of public and private debt to 30 billion euros ($35 billion), or half the current pace.
The decision “reflects growing confidence in the gradual convergence of inflation rates towards our inflation aim on account of the increasingly robust and broad-based economic expansion,” he said in a press conference after Thursday’s Governing Council meeting. “At the same time, domestic price pressures are still muted overall, and the economic outlook and path of inflation are conditional on support from monetary policy.”
While Draghi toned down his language, saying the euro area still needs “ample” stimulus instead of the “substantial” used in previous statements, he emphasized the need to tread carefully as long as consumer prices remain weak. QE will be extended again if needed, even if only to draw it to a gentle halt, and will take total holdings to at least 2.55 trillion euros.
The decision wasn’t unanimous. A key point of dissent among some policy makers has been whether or not to set a firm end date for purchases.
“I would characterize the discussion as ranging between consensus, broad consensus on some issues and large majority on others,” Draghi said. The decision to keep purchases effectively open-ended was taken by large majority, he said.
The ECB head highlighted additional risks including the strength of the euro, which has risen almost 12 percent against the dollar this year, potentially depressing price pressures and undermining export competitiveness. The currency slid after Thursday’s decision and was down 0.5 percent at $1.1759 at 3:19 p.m. Frankfurt time.
He also reiterated that governments need to step up their structural reforms “substantially.” That could be a key risk as monetary stimulus is pulled back.
“The door is left open to extend the asset-purchase program yet again,” said Ken Wattret, an economist at TS Lombard in London. “Though the likelihood of this happening for a fourth time looks rather lower now for various reasons, including the positive economic outlook.”
Investors have for months attempted to guess the central bank’s next move, with the drawn out decision-making process highlighting the struggles policy makers face in balancing a stimulus exit with the need to return inflation toward their objective.
Even after becoming the first major central bank to charge banks for deposits and embarking on a quantitative-easing program, inflation remains far from the goal of just below 2 percent. That partly reflects a phenomenon of lackluster price growth faced by developed economies across the globe, which U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen has called a mystery.
The ECB began large-scale asset purchases in March 2015 — more than six years after the Fed started its first program. Germany’s Bundesbank has been outspoken against the measure even before it began, arguing that it reduces incentives for governments to make their economies more competitive.
The latest reduction is the second after the program was slowed this April, and it is widely expected to constitute the final leg of QE as the ECB’s capacity to provide more stimulus becomes increasingly constrained by self-imposed rules.
Draghi pushed back on the idea that it is facing limitations.
“Our program is flexible enough that we can adjust its size,” he said. “We can carry it through smoothly, and that’s been the evidence we’ve given until now.”