February 4, 2016 / 4:41 PM / 2 years ago

Hamstrung central banks struggle with currency temptations

A Chinese national flag flutters outside the headquarters of the People's Bank of China, the Chinese central bank, in Beijing, April 3, 2014.Petar Kujundzic

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The world's top central banks have all but given up hope of returning to conventional monetary policy soon with many touting rate cuts, raising the risk of competitive currency devaluations and doubts they can meet their mandates.

Hitting a strongly dovish tone over the past day or so, central bankers have pointed to risks from emerging markets, China's economic slowdown and ultra-low inflation emanating from slashed oil prices.

All this in a year when the U.S. Federal Reserve and the Bank of England had expected to raise rates and the European Central Bank said it hoped it was done easing.

New York Fed Governor William Dudley, among the most influential policymakers on the Federal Open Market Committee, on Wednesday poured cold water on any lingering idea of a rate hike this year.

"One thing I think we can say with more confidence is that financial conditions are considerably tighter than they were at the time of the December meeting," when the Fed raised rates for the first time in almost a decade, Dudley said.

"So if those financial conditions were to remain in place by the time we get to the March meeting, we would have to take that into consideration in terms of that monetary policy decision," he added.

The Fed's well-telegraphed rate increase in December suggested to markets that three or four hikes could come this year. But those expectations have faded since the start of the year. Now markets only see a 40 percent chance of an increase next February FEDWATCH.

That is likely to be a headache for the ECB, which relies on a weak currency to boost inflation but has seen the euro EUR= strengthen 3.5 percent against the dollar just this week.

Adding to the dovish overtone, the Bank of England cut growth forecasts on Thursday and the lone advocate of a rate hike reversed his position, suggesting rates were on hold for an extended period even as Governor Mark Carney said the next move was still likely to be up.

CURRENCY WAR?

Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda, whose bank surprised markets with a cut last week that took Japanese rates into negative territory, said on Thursday he would not hesitate to ease policy further to hit a 2 percent inflation target at the "earliest" date possible.

His comments, among others, strengthened the euro, putting pressure on the ECB, which relies to a great extent on the weak currency to revive inflation.

Conscious that his comment could be seen as battle call, Kuroda asked other central banks for their understanding.

"As with the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank or any other major central bank, the BOJ doesn't target exchange rates in guiding monetary policy," Kuroda told parliament.

"By pushing down interest rates and the yield curve, we hope to push down real interest rates so that we can stimulate consumption and investment," he said on Thursday.

But pushing down currencies has been a key aim for several big central banks and another big devaluation in China is a persistent fear.

"The biggest risk for the world economy at this point is an aggressive policy of devaluation in China," the head of a major central bank in Europe told Reuters recently. "With uncertainty and volatility already high, it would have a big consequence for all economies."

The People's Bank of China has been fighting to keep the yuan stable since Jan. 6, when its second sharp depreciation in six months sparked fears of more as growth slows in the world's second-biggest economy, already at a 25-year low.

Chinese stocks .SSEC have lost over a fifth of their value since the start of the year, and a renewed slide in oil prices, a major indicator of economic activity, took Brent crude to its lowest since 2003. The CBOE Volatility Index .VIX, the U.S. equity market's "fear gauge", has risen sharply.

Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank's president, said acting too late to combat low inflation was more risky than acting too quickly, remarks that suggested the ECB could cut rates deeper into negative territory as early as March.

"Adopting a wait-and-see attitude and extending the policy horizon brings with it risks: namely a lasting de-anchoring of expectations leading to persistently weaker inflation," Draghi said on Thursday.

"And if that were to happen, we would need a much more accommodative monetary policy to reverse it," he said. "Seen from that perspective, the risks of acting too late outweigh the risks of acting too early."

Indeed, markets already expect the ECB to cut its deposit rate to -0.4 percent from -0.3 percent in early March, and see a high chance it will tweak its 1.5 trillion-euro asset purchase program.

Additional reporting by Leika Kihara in Tokyo, Dan Burns in New York and John Geddie in London; Editing by Ruth Pitchford

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