ECB reiterates rate hike warning

FRANKFURT(AFP): The European Central Bank (ECB) reiterated Thursday a strong warning about eurozone inflation, calling for price and wage moderation and suggesting it would raise interest rates if necessary.

A monthly ECB bulletin said it was “absolutely essential” that long-term inflation be avoided, underscoring that the bank “remains prepared to act pre-emptively so that second-round effects” do not materialise. Such effects include further consumer price increases and excessive pay increases. The ECB said inflation pressure “has been fully confirmed” after eurozone consumer prices rose by 3.1 percent in December, the biggest increase in six-and-a-half years.

The report was released a day after Yves Mersch, Luxembourg central bank chief and a member of the ECB board, spoke in an interview of “factors that mitigate inflation risks” and suggested the ECB should “be cautious” amid widespread economic uncertainty. That was taken to mean the bank could lower its main lending rate, currently at 4.0 percent, causing the euro to fall below $1.46 on foreign exchange markets.

Like ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet on Wednesday, the bulletin confirmed the bank’s economic outlook: “That of real GDP (gross domestic product) growth broadly in line with trend potential” of around two percent. But it acknowledged that this projection was subject to high uncertainty owing to the US housing crisis and its unknown final effect on the global economy.

Wording of the bulletin matched that of a press conference by Trichet on January 10, when the bank left its key interest rate unchanged. Among other threats to the economy, the ECB pointed Thursday to persistently high prices for oil and other commodities. While acknowledging growth risks, the bank has stressed concern about rising prices and said that keeping inflation expectations under control was its “highest priority,” suggesting it was more inclined to raise interest rates than to lower them.

Many economists have cast doubt on such a possibility however since the US Federal Reserve and Bank of England have begun a cycle of interest rate cuts.

Faced with such scepticism, Trichet raised his tone last week, saying the bank would not tolerate an upward spiral in consumer prices and wages, a message in part to trade unions gearing up for pay talks.

Faced with drops in purchasing power, labour representatives have become particularly militant in Germany, the biggest eurozone economy. The ECB has raised its rates eight times since an increase cycle began in December 2005, with the benchmark lending rate rising from two to four percent.

An additional hike was expected in September but rates remained on hold owing to the US subprime mortgage market crisis.


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