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When are those rate cuts coming, already? The European Central Bank may be providing some hints

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When are those rate cuts coming, already? The European Central Bank may be providing some hints
April 11, 2024
DAVID McHUGH - AP

FRANKFURT, Germany (AP) — The European Central Bank will likely use its Thursday meeting as a prelude to a first interest rate cut in June as the rich world’s central banks, including the ECB and the U.S. Federal Reserve, assess how soon receding inflation will let them loosen credit for businesses and consumers.

It’s a step closely watched for by stock investors, after markets soared in recent months on expectations of lower rates by this summer.

Broad stock market indexes fell immediately in the U.S. on Wednesday and bond prices rose after a hotter than expected inflation report raised fears that the Fed may wait longer than previously thought to lower its benchmark interest rate.

Analyst say it’s unlikely the ECB, the monetary authority for the 20 countries that use the euro currency, will change its interest benchmarks Thursday. Instead, the post-decision statement and President Christine Lagarde’s news conference will be scrutinized for hints about the potential downward path of rates in the future.

Lagarde has dropped what analysts interpret as broad hints that the bank will wait at least until its June 6 meeting to take any action as it waits to see sustained evidence that inflation is under control. With eurozone inflation falling to 2.4% in March, down from a peak of 10.6% in October 2023, Lagarde’s remarks have made many believe that a cut in June is likely from the current record high benchmark rate of 4%.

The focus Thursday will be on how much more guidance Lagarde will be willing to give during her news conference.

“We will be mainly looking for two things: changes to the communication and some hints at the size of the first and following rate cuts,” said Carsten Brzeski, chief of global macro at ING bank.

The ECB and the developed world’s other central banks are tilting toward undoing some of the sharp hikes to interest rates that were imposed with the goal of getting inflation under control. The Swiss National Bank was the first major central bank to cut rates in the current cycle on March 21. The big exception is Japan, which raised rates for the first time in 17 years on March 19.

Higher rates help squelch inflation by raising the cost of borrowing to buy things, which can cool demand for goods — but they can also slow growth if overdone or maintained for too long. And growth in Europe has been anemic to say the least. The eurozone economy didn't grow at all in the last three months of last year and the outlook for the figures from the quarter just ended isn't much better.

The ECB is teeing up a cut even as uncertainty grows over the prospect of a first rate cut from the U.S. Federal Reserve. U.S. annual inflation of 3.5% in March and robust U.S. jobs figures suggesting strong growth have led to questions about whether the Fed will carry through with the three rate cuts that it had signaled for this year. Analysts now think the U.S. cuts could be fewer or could come later than originally expected.

Rate cuts can boost stocks because they suggest the central bank sees a strong economy ahead that will boost corporate profits, and because lower interest rates make stocks relatively more attractive compared with interest-bearing holdings such as bonds or CDs.

The price spike in Europe was spurred by an outside shock: Russia cutting off most supplies of cheap natural gas after its invasion of Ukraine. The energy crisis came on top of logjams in supplies of raw materials and parts as the economy bounced back from the pandemic slowdown. Those issues have largely eased as energy prices have fallen to pre-war levels and as supply chain frictions have eased. But services inflation remains sticky, and the ECB wants to see more data on wage increases.

While the European energy shock is over, U.S. demand for goods remains buoyant. That means the inflation decline is “more predictable” in Europe, according to Erik F. Nielsen, UniCredit group chief economics adviser. “The US inflation hump was comparatively driven more by excess demand than European inflation, created by the vastly expansionary US fiscal policy,” he wrote in an email.

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