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ECB puts inflation target in focus

Its increasingly overt promises of more stimulus are intended to prop up confidence as economy struggles

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Mr Draghi has said that the outlook is getting worse and worse.

Frankfurt

EUROPEAN Central Bank (ECB) president Mario Draghi said that the bank's all-important inflation target should not be viewed as a 2 per cent cap, in a significant move accompanied on Thursday by further explicit hints of easing down the road.

With inflation stuck well below its target, industrial output in Germany in freefall and the U. Federal Reserve already in easing mode, it was widely seen as just a matter of time before the ECB opened the door to more stimulus.

The ECB, which kept interest rates unchanged for now, said in its statement that it saw rates at present or lower levels till mid-2020, giving up a previous pledge to keep rates unchanged through next June. It also tasked its staff to look at various other easing options including restarting asset purchases.

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"This outlook is getting worse and worse," Mr Draghi told a news conference, adding that a once-hoped-for rebound in the second half of the year was "less likely".

The ECB statement also omitted its standard reference to an aim of inflation rates "below, but close to, 2 per cent" over the medium term, talking instead of a "commitment to symmetry in the inflation aim".

"The bottom line . . . is basically we don't like what we see on the inflation front and symmetry means there is no 2 per cent cap. Inflation can deviate on both sides," he said.

The increasingly overt promises of more stimulus are intended to prop up confidence in a eurozone economy struggling with a manufacturing recession that risks unravelling years of stimulus.

While consumer confidence, employment and bank lending remain healthy, a recent string of industrial sentiment indicators paint a dismal picture, raising the risk that weak external demand - partly the result of a global trade war - could soon infect the domestic economy.

The euro eased on the ECB's decision, trading at around 1.111 against the US dollar at 1200 GMT compared with around 1.113 before the bank's announcement. It later moved higher as Mr Draghi said that the risk of an all-out recession was still low.

Expectations of new ECB stimulus have already driven down borrowing costs for eurozone governments, with the yield on Germany's 10-year bond delving deeper into negative territory at -0.41 per cent on Thursday, close to a record low.

The case for ECB stimulus is supported by weak economic data, particularly in foreign trade and manufacturing, the engine of the eurozone economy's recent growth run.

Indeed, the German Ifo institute warned earlier on Thursday that recession was spreading across all important sectors of German industry and sentiment was deteriorating quickly.

"There is far and wide nothing to be seen of the second-half recovery hoped for in many places," Commerzbank economist Joerg Kraemer said. "Germany is in a grey area between a marked growth slowdown and a recession."

While some argued that there is no urgency for ECB action, Mr Draghi has just three months left of his eight-year tenure, giving him only a handful of opportunities to secure his legacy before he hands over to Christine Lagarde on Oct 31.

Another problem is that whatever measure the ECB takes in the coming months, they all come with complications and have only limited potency given that the ECB has already exhausted much of its firepower.

Rates are already at record lows and the ECB's balance sheet is equivalent to 40 per cent of the block's economic output, suggesting that the limits of its stimulus are near.

Buying more government bonds could also create problems for the bank as it is at or near its self-imposed limits for several of the 19 eurozone countries. REUTERS