* ECB "strongly emphasises" policy will remain accommodative
* Draghi says firmer words strengthen forward guidance
* ECB key rate unchanged at 0.25 percent
* Draghi says euro zone may face prolonged low inflation
* Says doesn't see Japanese-style deflation in euro zone
By Eva Taylor and Sakari Suoninen
FRANKFURT, Jan 9 The European Central Bank on
Thursday forcefully underlined its determination to take action
should euro zone inflation risk turning into deflation or rising
money market rates threaten the bloc's fragile recovery.
After leaving interest rates at a record low on Thursday,
the ECB toughened its pledge to keep its policy loose, "firmly
reiterating" its expectation for rates to remain at current or
lower levels for an extended period.
"The Governing Council strongly emphasises that it will
maintain an accommodative stance of monetary policy for as long
as necessary," ECB President Mario Draghi said after the
decision to leave the main interest rate at 0.25 percent.
The rate decision was widely expected and came after news
earlier this week that euro zone inflation slowed to 0.8 percent
in December, a development Draghi blamed on a one-off technical
quirk in German service sector figures.
The central bank's last policy action was to shave its main
rate to 0.25 percent in November.
Draghi, stressing that "we have several instruments that we
can use", acknowledged that the ECB had used stronger language
this month than previously and identified two scenarios that
could trigger fresh policy action.
"One is unwarranted tightening of the short-term money
markets and the other one is a worsening of our medium-term
outlook for inflation," he told a news conference.
The euro initially fell on the more dovish ECB tone
before recovering as Draghi said it was pointless to speculate
what instruments the ECB might use next as it would depend on
which scenario unfolded.
He would not be drawn on the possibility of outright
purchases of securities similar to the quantitative easing
policies of the U.S. Federal Reserve, the Bank of England and
the Bank of Japan, saying only that the ECB could do whatever
its treaty mandate allowed.
JP Morgan economist Greg Fuzesi said that with both the
scenarios Draghi identified that could prompt action "it remains
very unclear where the ECB's trigger points lie."
"Overall, we continue to think that the ECB is on hold,
despite the uncomfortably low level of inflation," Fuzesi said.
"We also think that a large shock would be needed to trigger a
significant response, rather than an incremental one."
Draghi had said in a magazine interview published last week
that the ECB must be careful not to slip into a "danger zone" of
inflation rates entrenched below 1 percent.
The dip in inflation in December had fed concerns among some
ECB watchers about deflation taking hold in the euro zone.
In Greece, annual inflation is already running at minus 2.9
percent. However, Draghi drew a distinction between deflation as
a protracted fall in prices and necessary internal price
adjustments in some euro zone countries.
"Right now, we don't see deflation," he said. "By and large
we don't see a deflation in the Japanese sense of the 1990s."
With policy rates so low and the ECB's toolbox depleting,
the threshold for further policy easing has risen, even as the
central bank worries about slow price rises.
Low inflation is not the central bank's only concern. A lack
of lending and receding excess liquidity - the amount of money
in the market on top of what banks need for their day-to-day
operations - are adding to its dilemma.
Excess liquidity - the money from ECB loans - almost halved
overnight to 157 billion euros ($213.53 billion) as banks took
up fewer funds from the ECB, which has reduced liquidity further
by offsetting its bond purchases.
Early repayments of three-year central bank loans resume
next week, meaning even more funds will be siphoned out of the
markets, helping push money market rates up more.
Draghi has repeatedly said banks returning money to the ECB
is a positive sign and has said interbank markets are working
better. But if banks hoard less cash, borrowing costs rise.
Lending to companies in the bloc shrank at the fastest pace
on record in November and the difference in corporate loan costs
around the bloc grew. This suggests the ECB's low rates are
still not filtering into all countries.
Nevertheless, Draghi said confidence was gradually returning
to the euro zone economy and the central bank's very
accommodative monetary policy stance was finally finding its way
into the real economy.
He stopped short of saying the euro zone crisis is over.
"The recovery is there but it's weak, it's modest and as I
said many times, it's fragile meaning that there are several
risks from financial to economic to geopolitical to political
risks that could undermine easily this recovery," he said.