BENGALURU (Reuters) - The European Central Bank is likely to announce a reduction of its monthly asset purchases in October, according to a majority of economists in a Reuters poll, who also said they expect the central bank to shut down the program by the end of next year.
Expectations the ECB will scale back its stimulus have been supported by solid growth in the euro zone this year, although inflation, at 1.5 percent, remains below the central bank’s target of just under 2 percent.
In July, the ECB said it had not discussed reducing its asset purchases, also known as quantitative easing (QE), but signaled the change would likely come “this autumn”.
Nearly three-fourths of 66 economists in a Reuters poll taken Aug 28-31 expect the central bank to announce a change in October. Just three weeks ago, slightly over half of economists polled had said such an announcement would come in September.
But in the latest poll, only 15 respondents expected it at the Sept 7 policy-setting meeting. The remaining five economists said the central bank will wait until December.
“The ECB at best will charge the relevant committee to examine how QE can proceed in September, and the concrete announcement of tapering and how QE will proceed will come only in October,” said Peter Vanden Houte, chief euro zone economist at ING Financial Markets.
Asked what the ECB is likely to do beyond December, when the asset purchases program is scheduled to expire, economists unanimously said the central bank would extend it but would reduce monthly purchases from the current 60 billion euros. Most said they would be reduced to 40 billion euros a month to start.
The euro zone is seeing its strongest run of growth in more than a decade. And while inflation has lagged - as it is in many economies - the latest euro zone data were higher than expected.
That may support the case for tapering, but the central bank is now dealing with a strengthening euro EUR=, up over 12 percent this year against the dollar. A rising exchange rate tends to push down import prices, further weakening inflation.
The euro’s strength has an increasing number of policymakers at the central bank concerned, according to an exclusive Reuters story on Thursday based on three sources familiar with those discussions.
A stronger currency has also increased the chances of an even gentler reduction in the pace of asset purchases.
“Rather than signal exit in advance, we think the ECB strategy will be to wrap the exit decision in dovishness when it is announced in October,” wrote Mark Wall, chief euro area economist at Deutsche Bank, in a note.
“With the full normalization of core inflation not yet compelling, the onus is on the ECB to avoid markets, and in particular the exchange rate, overshooting.”
The discussions over the future of the asset purchases program are likely to begin the rate meeting in September. But no decision is expected until after the German federal elections later in the month.
The ECB is expected to keep its interest rates on hold through to next year.
Fifty-eight of 63 economists who answered an extra question said the ECB is likely to completely end its QE program by the end of next year, including 10 respondents who expect it to end by June. The remaining five said it won’t end until 2019.
But much will depend on how ECB President Mario Draghi communicates the change of policy to avoid an extreme reaction, or “taper tantrum”, as the market reaction was called to the U.S. Federal Reserve’s first steps when it cut back QE.
Some analysts, though, are concerned that the ECB’s room for maneuver is limited.
“Draghi remained dovish at the last meeting, arguing that there is no hurry to discuss tapering and that the Governing Council has shown in the past that it will find the means to do more if the inflation outlook is not in line with the ECB’s self-imposed ‘aim’,” Anatoli Annenkov, senior European economist at Societe Generale, wrote in a note.
“However, he has done little to lean against the recent tightening in financial conditions, driven by the strong economy and market convictions that the ECB is running out of options.”
Polling by Shrutee Sarkar and Khushboo Mittal; Editing by Ross Finley, Larry King