Up, down? Banks on close watch

The European Central Bank has kept its gunpowder dry again, holding its key interest rates unchanged for the fifth month in a row. But in New Zealand, rates are likely to rise again in three weeks. Business editor Dene Mackenzie looks at global rates.

European Central Bank governor Mario Draghi kept the central bank's refinancing rate unchanged at...
European Central Bank governor Mario Draghi kept the central bank's refinancing rate unchanged at 0.25%. Photo by Reuters.
The European Central Bank left its central ''refi'', or refinancing rate, unchanged at 0.25% at its monthly policy meeting this week.

The central bank also held its other two key rates - the marginal lending rate and the deposit rate - unchanged at 0.75% and 0% respectively.

The ECB last pared back euro zone borrowing costs in November.

And while few ECB watchers had been betting on a further cut this month, there was still some expectation the central bank might ease monetary conditions in the 18 countries at some point to ward off the spectre of deflation.

For the time being, ECB officials reject suggestions the euro area is in danger of slipping into deflation - the destructive spiral of falling prices in which consumers put off purchases, thus destroying salaries, jobs and investment.

The EU statistics agency Eurostat put area-wide inflation at just 0.5% in March, down from 0.8% in February, way below the ECB's target of just below 2.0%.

Bank president Mario Draghi said the ECB was determined to maintain euro zone easy-money policies and would take rapid action if needed.

The bank ''remains resolute in our determination'' to keep monetary conditions in the euro area accommodative and would ''act swiftly'' if necessary, Mr Draghi said amid concerns about possible deflation.

''We do not exclude further monetary easing,'' he told a press conference.

In its determination to keep deflation at bay in the euro zone economy and the recovery on track, the ECB was prepared to use not just conventional monetary policy tools such as interest rates, but non-standard measures as well, he said.

Those included so-called quantitative easing, or injecting cash into the market through the issuance of treasury bonds.

The ECB also took exchange rates into account when setting interest rates, but has no firm target for the euro-US dollar cross rate.

The exchange rate was very important for price stability but it was not a policy target, Mr Draghi said.

Bank of New Zealand chief economist Tony Alexander said the next rise in New Zealand rates was expected in three weeks, when the Reserve Bank next reviewed its monetary policy.

It raised the official cash rate to 2.75% last month.

It should be noted that although the Reserve Bank had imposed credit controls on home buyers, there was no obvious slowing in the pace of debt growth, backing up the contention the controls had mainly pushed first-home buyers out of the housing market and provided more space for other groups, such as investors.

''This week, wholesale interest rates have moved higher with increased borrowing for fixed terms and the simple passage of time bringing us closer to the next expected official cash rate increase on April 24,'' he said.

Like New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, British Prime Minister David Cameron is likely to go into an election campaign in a climate of rising interest rates.

Bank of England governor Mark Carney said interest rates could increase ahead of the next general election but he wanted to see more jobs created in the northeast of the country before he would intervene.

The governor told the Northern Echo interest-rates rises would be ''gradual'' even though Britain's economy was growing faster than that of any of the world's developed nations.

''We are one year into a recovery, but it is an uneven recovery. Our job is to help turn this into a strong, sustainable and balanced expansion. This is not about getting back to where were were in 2008. Our aspirations are much higher,'' he said.

The Bank of England would set policy as appropriate to fulfil its core responsibility to meet the 2% inflation target but it had not set timing conditions on that, Mr Carney said.

Reserve Bank of Australia governor Glenn Stevens left the Australian central lending rate unchanged at 2.5% this week but hinted the next move would be upwards after an extended period of stable interest rates.

Growth in the global economy was slightly below trend in 2013, but there were reasonable prospects of an improvement this year.

The United States economy, while affected by adverse weather, continued its expansion and the euro area had begun a recovery from recession, albeit a fragile one. Japan had recorded a ''significant'' pick-up in growth. China's growth remained generally in line with policymakers' objectives, although it might have slowed early this year. Commodity prices had fallen from their peaks but remained high in historical terms, he said.

Financial conditions overall remained accommodative. Long-term interest rates and most risk spreads remained low. Equity and credit markets were well placed to provide adequate funding but for some emerging market countries, conditions were more challenging than a year ago.

In Australia, the economy grew at a below-trend pace last year, Mr Stevens said.

''Recent information suggests slightly firmer consumer demand over the summer and foreshadows a solid expansion in housing construction.

''Some indicators of business conditions and confidence have improved from a year ago and exports are rising.''

But at the same time, resources sector investment spending was set to fall significantly and, at this stage, signs of improvement in investment intentions in other sectors were only tentative.

Looking ahead, continued accommodative monetary policy should provide support for demand and help strengthen growth. Inflation was expected to be consistent with the 2% to 3% target over the next two years, Mr Stevens said.

Selected central interest rates
Russia, 7%; China, 6%; Mexico, 3.5%; New Zealand, 2.75%; Australia, 2.5%; South Korea, 2.5%; Canada, 1%; Bank of England, 0.5%; ECB, 0.25%; United States, 0.2%; Japan, 0.1%.

- dene.mackenzie@odt.co.nz

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