Waiting in vain for ECB interest rate reversal

Thursday, June 8th, 2017
Last Update: 10:34

European Central Bank governors are to meet in Estonia΄s capital for their next interest rate meeting. But no one really expects a rate hike, so German savers will have to exercise more patience.The eurozone΄s near decade of economic stagnation appears to be over. In the first quarter of 2017, gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 0.5 percent, having already risen significantly in the quarter before. That΄s why the European Central Bank (ECB) is unlikely to increase money supply even further. At most, just a few subtle changes are expected on Thursday.

"In my opinion, there will be a very delicate hint given," predicted Kristian Todtmann of Germany΄s DekaBank, regarding the upcoming interest rate decision.

The ECB will no longer speak of downside risks to economic growth or at least say that the risks are no longer downward. A further change could be that ECB boss Mario Draghi will no longer speak about the possibility of even lower interest rates, the economist told DW.

The key interest rate in the euro zone has been held at zero percent for the past year. But anyone who thinks that the end of the flagpole has been reached is wrong. Already, banks have to pay 0.4 percent of their interest if they deposit excess money with the central bank. So, negative interest rates could still be a consideration.

Despite the likely absence of indications of even more expansive measures, this should not be confused with the end of the liquidity glut. After all, the ECB still buys government bonds worth some 60 billion euros ($68 billion) from the banks every month, so they can pass on the money as loans to businesses. This measure is intended to stimulate the economy and inflation.

No inflation yet

"Now we have a new situation that the economy is relatively good, while inflation remains very low," Todtmann told DW.

Although the inflation rate reached the ECB target of just under 2 percent in April at 1.9 percent, it fell back in May to 1.4 percent. The core inflation rate that the ECB pays particular attention to is even more depressing.

"If you look at the pace of inflation excluding energy and food, you realize that we are back to a rate that we΄ve seen many times before, namely 0.9 percent," said Michael Schubert, ECB analyst at Germany΄s second-largest lender Commerzbank.

Inflation dynamics are "still dependent on the extension of our current monetary policy," ECB boss Mario Draghi emphasized recently, to help justify his bond purchase program, which will run until the end of 2017 at least.

Commerzbank΄s Schubert expects the buying to continue: "The ECB has already said that it will not terminate this program abruptly, which means that even if it thinks it is no longer necessary, it will probably let the scheme slowly taper off."

There will be fewer purchases in 2018, so instead of 60 billion, the ECB will buy 30 or 40 billion euros worth of bonds monthly. As the central bank has insisted that the bond purchase scheme would have to cease before rates are hiked, some analysts believe it could take years before the first rate increase is realized.

Meanwhile, the by-products of this ultra-loose monetary policy have become clear. "For example, as banks struggle with profitability, they have to take additional risks," Schubert told DW. The danger of bubbles in the real estate and financial markets is increasing, he added.

Sneaky seizure of savings

Germany, in particular, is the real victim of the ECB΄s low interest rate policy. "Germany is a country with high current account surpluses, which means that we have more savers than borrowers," said DekaBank΄s Todtmann.

Read more: The German savers who must pay interest to their own bank While savers are forced to accept negative real interest rates, debtors benefit from loans close to zero percent. According to Commerzbank΄s Schubert, the governments of heavily indebted countries like Spain and Greece have been able to make enormous savings.

"One can assume that some reforms were held back because the state΄s finances no longer look so bad. Unpopular austerity need not cut so deep."

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