The European Central Bank (ECB) is adding half a trillion euros ($579 billion) in stimulus to the eurozone economy to support growth as Europe heads into what could be a tumultuous election year.
The bank’s 25-member governing council startled markets Thursday by reducing the monthly amount of its bond purchases — by which it performs the stimulus — but extending them for six months instead of nine.
ECB President Mario Draghi said the reduction did not mean the bank was tapering, or phasing out, the stimulus.
The chief monetary authority for the 19 countries that use the euro said the bond purchases would continue at least through December, past the previous earliest end date of March.
After March, it will reduce the amount of bonds it buys to 60 billion euros ($64 billion) a month from 80 billion euros. That effectively adds at least 540 billion euros in stimulus to the existing 1.74 billion ($1.87 trillion) effort.
Draghi said the central bank could increase the monthly purchases if needed and that there is still no firm end date for the stimulus program. He said it meant “a more lasting transmission of our monetary stimulus,” not a reduction in support.
The euro fell in international markets, declining 0.9 percent against the dollar to $1.0655. More stimulus like bond-buying tends to weigh on a currency.
Economist Carsten Brzeski at ING-DiBa said the ECB risked sending the impression it was focused on reducing the rate of stimulus rather than increasing it. “It is the combination of extending and tapering that we thought would not yet happen as it could risk an unwarranted increase in bond yields.”
“Even without calling this tapering, the ECB just announced tapering.”
The bond purchases pump freshly created money into the banking system in hopes of increasing weak inflation and boosting growth. The flood of cash also helps keep financial markets calmer as Europe faces elections in the Netherlands and France next year where anti-EU, populist candidates are expected to do well.
By adding stimulus, the ECB is moving in the opposite direction to that of the U.S. Federal Reserve. The U.S. central bank is contemplating another interest rate increase at its Dec. 13-14 meeting. Markets have been betting that President-elect Donald Trump will carry through on promises to spend more on infrastructure such as roads and bridges after he is inaugurated Jan. 20, boosting growth and inflation in the months and years ahead. That would give the Fed more reason to raise rates.
Beyond the stimulus program, the ECB kept its key interest rate benchmarks unchanged. It left at zero its refinancing rate, at which it lends money to commercial banks, and minus 0.4 percent on deposits it takes from banks.
Draghi had made clear in recent days that the bank was not seeing a convincing upturn in inflation. It aims for 2 percent annual inflation, considered best for growth and jobs, and right now inflation is only 0.6 percent annually. That’s better than the falling prices seen earlier this year, but still well below target.
Worse, core inflation, which includes volatile fuel and food, remained stuck at 0.8 percent in November — lower than the 0.9 percent reading from a year ago. Meanwhile, economic growth is only modest at 0.3 percent in the third quarter.
On top of that, the shared euro currency could be facing serious political turbulence. The British vote to leave the European Union and the election of Trump in the United States are considered to have boosted the prospects of anti-elite and anti-EU politicians. Next year could see a strong showing by anti-immigration politician Geert Wilders and his Party For Freedom in the Netherlands in March. In France, National Front leader Marine Le Pen is expected to make it past the first round of presidential voting in April, although she isn’t the favorite to win in the second round in May. She wants France, a member of the euro, to follow Britain in leaving the European Union.
There’s more. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi resigned after voters rejected his proposed constitutional changes in a referendum Sunday. That means political uncertainty about who will be the next prime minister, just as the government faces troubles with the country’s banks. The third largest, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, is struggling under the weight of bad loans and may need a government-funded rescue soon. So far, markets have taken Renzi’s downfall in stride. That hasn’t eliminated fears, however, that Italy may again become a source of trouble for the eurozone.
ECB bond purchases are aimed at raising inflation by adding to the supply of money in the financial system in hopes it will be used for loans and increase business activity. But the purchases also have the side effect of tranquilizing bond markets because participants know there is a big buyer that can’t run out of money due to its power as the legal issuer of the euro currency to print more cash if needed. That keeps bond prices up and holds down interest yields, which move opposite to prices.
Bond market turbulence, in the form of rising borrowing costs for indebted governments like Italy seeking to roll over large debt burdens, raised fears in 2011 that the eurozone might break up.