ECB deaf to call for more action to help euro zone

WASHINGTON Sun Apr 22, 2012 2:40pm EDT

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi takes his seat for an International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC) meeting during the spring IMF-World Bank meetings in Washington, April 21, 2012. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

European Central Bank President Mario Draghi takes his seat for an International Monetary and Financial Committee (IMFC) meeting during the spring IMF-World Bank meetings in Washington, April 21, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - European Central Bank officials showed no sign of bending to renewed international pressure to do more to boost the euro zone's struggling economy.

Top ECB policymakers, attending the International Monetary Fund's spring meetings, politely but firmly rebuffed the IMF's call that the bank should cut its policy interest rate below 1 percent and be prepared to provide more public funding to banks to reduce the risk of a new flare-up of the crisis.

"It's a free world, we take note of this, but let me say that none of the advice of the IMF has been discussed by the Governing Council, in recent times at least," ECB President Mario Draghi told a news conference on Friday.

And the ECB delegation to Washington had nothing to say, at least publicly, about a fresh suggestion by U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner that the ECB had a role to play in helping European economies through tough reforms ahead.

"We think we have done our task in the last months by quite a number of standard and non-standard measures we have taken," ECB executive board member Joerg Asmussen said on Friday on the sidelines of the IMF meetings.

He said the ball was now in the court of euro zone governments, which are trying to narrow budget deficits and undertake other reforms to restore market confidence and generate growth.

Unlike the U.S. Federal Reserve, which pursues full employment as well as low inflation, the ECB's marching orders are to focus on keeping price growth in check, a point underscored by ECB officials several times over the weekend.

The Fed may yet provide more stimulus, on top of its near-zero interest rates and the $2.3 trillion in bonds it has already bought, even though the U.S. economy is stronger than Europe's.

Economists polled by Reuters expect growth in the euro area to shrink by 0.4 percent in 2012 and to stay in a mild recession until the third quarter as weakness in Italy, Spain and Greece outweighs the stronger performance of regional powerhouses Germany and France.

"The stance of our monetary policy is fully appropriate," ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio said in a speech. "It's appropriate to the situation and the prospects that we (face) right now."

The pressure on the ECB in Washington to do more to help growth contrasted with concerns among many policymakers from the 17-nation euro zone that their unprecedented stimulus to date could spark inflation when the region's economies regain health.

ECB officials said they have met their responsibilities by lowering interest rates to 1 percent and providing two rounds of long-term loans to banks to prevent a credit crunch.

Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann said there was no shortcut for the ECB to restore market confidence.

"You cannot solve structural problems in the economy with instruments of monetary policy," Weidmann said.

His counterpart at the Bank of France, Christian Noyer, also pushed back at the notion of the ECB as the savior of Europe.

"There is a tendency among certain market participants and certain policymakers to consider the central banks as universal problem solvers whose balance sheet can be used without cost for all sorts of purposes," he told an audience in Washington.

Nonetheless, he suggested the ECB would be in no rush to return to normality.

"In the situation where we are today, we may have to live with a combination of high public debt and unconventional monetary policy measures for some period of time and monetary policy will likely for some time rely on a diversity of instruments and also macroprudential measures will interact with monetary policy in a complex way," he said.

With many debt-laden euro area countries trying to prove their fiscal mettle with budget cuts, the ECB is seen by many as the only authority capable of taking growth-enhancing measures.

The question of whether policymakers around the world need to act to boost growth was a central one at the IMF discussions.

"Countries were pretty divided about that. European countries mostly believe that you just need to carry on the fiscal consolidation and economies will adjust," Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega said.

Economist Nouriel Roubini said the ECB should consider cutting interest rates to weaken the euro currency and boost exports at a time when demand within the euro zone was so weak.

The IMF warned last week that rising funding pressure in the European banking system may reignite the crisis, and it has called on the ECB to provide monetary stimulus.

The IMF praised the ECB's recent decision to raise the combined lending ceiling of the European Stability Mechanism and the European Financial Stability Facility but said an expanded ESM may be necessary.

Financial markets do not expect the ECB to change policy at its May meeting, but observers are watching closely for any hints about plans for an exit from loose monetary policy.

Markets expect the ECB to keep interest rates on hold for the rest of this year and well into the next.

(Additional reporting by Krista Hughes, Pedro da Costa and the IMF reporting team; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

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