* ECB holds low cost of borrowing steady at August meeting
* Draghi expected to flag risks from Ukraine
* ECB hopes new schemes will prompt banks to lend
(Adds detail of decision, background, analyst comment)
By Eva Taylor and John O'Donnell
FRANKFURT, Aug 7 The European Central Bank held
borrowing rates on Thursday as it pinned its hopes on lending
measures to bolster a struggling euro zone economy facing
further damage from the Ukraine conflict.
Having cut interest rates to record lows in June, the euro
zone's central bank kept them steady, waiting to see whether
schemes such as the ultra-cheap four-year loans to banks it will
launch in September will prompt them to lend more.
The decision by the ECB's Governing Council, with
representatives from the 18 countries that use the euro, had
been expected by economists.
Many are now shifting their attention to next year, when
they hope the ECB will follow the United States and other major
central banks in launching a money-printing programme known as
quantitative easing to buy assets such as government bonds.
"The euro zone is at a crossroads and the economy can go
either way," said James Knightley, an economist with ING.
"We are starting to see some signs of stagnation and the
geopolitical situation is adding to the risks. Can the weaker
euro and better credit conditions offset that? If they don't,
that will force the ECB's hand."
Heightened tensions between Russia and Western countries
over the conflict in Ukraine have already hit business
confidence in the euro zone.
Russia has banned imports of fruit and vegetables from the
European Union in retaliation for sanctions against Moscow,
while NATO warned this week that Moscow could use the pretext of
a humanitarian mission to invade eastern Ukraine.
Nonetheless, many economists do not expect a reaction from
Frankfurt unless there is a dramatic turn for the worse.
"The geopolitical situation is increasing risks to the
economy but we don't expect them to change course until next
year," Societe Generale economist Anatoli Annenkov said.
"We expect the ECB to launch an asset purchase programme
early next year, buying private-sector rather than government
bonds at the outset. But for the time being, they are going a
different route to encourage lending."
In June, the ECB became the first major central bank to
charge banks for holding their deposits overnight, a step
designed to stop them hoarding cash and lend instead. It will
also roll out the new programme of cheap loans tied to lending
to smaller euro zone businesses from next month.
ECB President Mario Draghi is expected to address the risks
posed by Ukraine when he speaks at a news conference after the
But he is unlikely to drop any hints as to when the central
bank could start a money-printing programme, a contested step
that would be deeply unpopular in Germany, the biggest economy
in the bloc.
With price inflation, a key yardstick of the strength of the
economy, at record lows, some investors are growing impatient.
"The question will be 'how much closer does this get us to
QE?" said Richard Barwell, an economist with RBS. "He has to
walk a tightrope between sounding too complacent and sounding
As well as Ukraine, the euro zone faces other hurdles.
Data this week showed Italy, the third-biggest euro zone
economy, has slipped back into recession while the Bundesbank
says even powerhouse Germany stagnated in the second quarter.
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has led calls to move
away from spending austerity to adopting looser EU budget rules,
but has been rebuffed by Berlin.
Draghi, an Italian, may also join this debate, which has
divided southern euro countries such as Greece from northern
partners such as Germany, to pressure Renzi not to abandon
In France, the region's second biggest economy which is also
struggling, President Francois Hollande said the ECB and Germany
must do more to boost growth and fight a "real deflationary
risk" in Europe.
Euro zone inflation hit a paltry 0.4 percent in July, the
lowest in more than four years.
Low prices are partly a result of spending cuts and lower
wages, reforms the ECB does not want to hinder. But if prices
get stuck at low levels, the ECB insists it is ready to act.
(Additional reporting by Paul Carrel in Frankfurt; Writing by
John O'Donnell; Editing by Catherine Evans)