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The ECB’s Benchmark Interest Rate Unchanged at Zero

The ECB’s Benchmark Interest Rate Unchanged at Zero

The European Central Bank is stressing that interest rates will stay low well into next year even as the U.S. Federal Reserve is expected to keep raising rates in coming months.

The central bank for the 19 countries that use the euro left its key rates and monetary stimulus settings unchanged at a meeting Thursday at its headquarters in Frankfurt, Germany.

Investors are looking for more clarity from ECB President head Mario Draghi’s subsequent news conference on when interest rates might start to rise next year.

The bank has said it will phase out its bond-buying stimulus program by year-end, and will keep interest rates on hold “through the summer” of 2019. Speculation on what that means has ranged from July to September or even later.

The ECB is withdrawing stimulus as the economy grows, but doing it so slowly that its path is diverging sharply from that of the Fed, which is already raising rates. The Fed has withdrawn stimulus more quickly because the U.S. economy emerged from the Great Recession more quickly, and now has lower unemployment.

The rich world’s major central banks — also including the Bank of England and the Bank of Japan— are slowly withdrawing stimulus measures they deployed to support the economy during and after the global financial crisis and Great Recession.

The end of the stimulus will have wide-ranging effects, such as increasing borrowing costs for governments and home buyers. By raising returns on safe assets such as bonds and savings accounts, it could also make those holdings more attractive relative to stocks and change investor attitudes toward the risks of the longstanding bull market. The ECB is proceeding gingerly to avoid market disruptions.

ECB officials have expressed confidence that inflation is sustainably trending toward their goal of just under 2 percent. It came in at 2 percent in June, although when excluding volatile items like oil and food, prices remain weaker. The central bankers are still keeping a wary eye on recent signs of weaker growth, and on the chance that a trade conflict between the United States and other countries could hurt global trade and thus the export-dependent European economy.

Lower exchange rates in the eurozone can help keep the euro’s exchange rate lower against the dollar, which helps European exporters.

The ECB’s short-term benchmark rate was unchanged at a record low of zero, as was the negative 0.4 percent rate on deposits it takes from banks. That is a penalty aimed at pushing the banks to lend and support the economy rather than hoard the money. By comparison, the Fed’s key rate is in a range between 1.75 percent and 2 percent and more rate increases are expected this year.

The 2.4 trillion euro ($2.8 trillion) bond-buying program pumps newly created money into the banking system in an attempt to raise inflation and support growth by making credit easier to get.

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