FRANKFURT European Central Bank President Mario Draghi threw the door wide open on Friday for more drastic measures to prevent the euro zone from sliding into deflation, promising to use whatever means necessary as China also acted to boost its sagging economic growth.
With many fearing the euro zone could be heading for a Japanese-style lost decade of deflation and recession, Draghi's remarks were reminiscent of when he pulled the bloc back from possible disintegration in 2012 by promising to do "whatever it takes" to back the common currency.
Painting a bleak picture of the state of the 18 countries in the euro bloc, Draghi stressed that "excessively low" inflation had to be raised quickly.
In a blunt message, he said there was now no sign of improvement in the months ahead and the ECB would pump more money into the euro bloc if its current measures fell short.
"We will do what we must to raise inflation and inflation expectations as fast as possible," he told an audience of bankers in Frankfurt.
"If ... our policy is not effective enough to achieve this, or further risks to the inflation outlook materialise, we would step up the pressure and broaden even more the channels through which we intervene, by altering accordingly the size, pace and composition of our purchases," he said.
Annual euro zone inflation was 0.4 percent in October, far short of the ECB's medium-term target of just below two percent.
Draghi's comments, which many read as inching very close to possible buying of government bonds, received a warm reception from Italian finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan, who said ECB action was welcome to revive economic growth in the euro zone.
The ECB said on Friday it had started buying asset-backed securities. Along with purchases of covered bonds, a secure form of debt often backed by property, it is trying to encourage banks to lend and revive the economy.
Draghi said earlier this week that if the current measures were not enough, or if inflation expectations deteriorated further, the ECB could widen its purchases to include debt of euro zone governments, a strategy which German policymakers strongly oppose.
Economists expect bold ECB action. "Draghi all but announced that the central bank will step up monetary easing soon. Mr Maybe has become Mr Definitely," said Nick Kounis of ABN Amro.
But it is unclear how much such a move can help Europe as the prospects for the global economy and one of its chief engines of growth, China, grow ever more uncertain.
China cut its benchmark interest rates for the first time in more than two years on Friday to stimulate economic growth, which is on track for its lowest annual rate in 24 years.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called snap elections, seeking a mandate for his struggling "Abenomics" revival strategy after the economy unexpectedly slipped into recession.
The euro zone grew 0.2 percent in the third quarter, giving an annual rate of 0.8 percent, according to a flash estimate from the European statistical agency Eurostat. Of the major national economies, Italy has already fallen back into recession.
Draghi had said further measures could involve large-scale purchases of government bonds - the kind of quantitative easing that the United States, Japan and Britain have already used. Such a step in the euro zone would, however, encounter stiff resistance from the bloc's largest economy, Germany.
Bundesbank President Jens Weidmann, speaking shortly after Draghi at the same event, avoided talking about the issue entirely. The two have clashed before on their views on the future policy path.
"We can't be constantly commenting on one another," Weidmann told reporters as he left the event.
Draghi's comments nonetheless pushed 10-year government bond yields in Italy IT10YT=TWEB, Ireland IE10YT=TWEB and Austria AT10YT=TWEB to new all-time lows and sent the value of the euro down below $1.25.
His tone was contrasted to when he spoke to European lawmakers earlier in the week and pointed to early signs of improvements.
"Over shorter horizons, however, indicators have been declining to levels that I would deem excessively low," he said.
As the euro zone economy has nearly stuttered to a halt, the ECB is trying to unblock lending by flooding the market with billion of euros, buying reparcelled debt and giving cheap loans directly to banks. But should these steps not be enough to bring inflation back to the medium-term target, Draghi said the ECB would act.
"This is why the Governing Council has tasked ECB staff and the relevant Eurosystem committees with ensuring the timely preparation of further measures to be implemented, if needed."
Draghi's promise two years ago to save the euro brought down the borrowing costs of euro zone governments such as Spain and Italy, which were reaching unaffordable levels at the time.
Some people doubt quantitative easing would achieve much, as the borrowing costs of euro zone governments have already fallen to record lows.
"It has never been cheaper for countries such as France to borrow," said Michael Heise, the chief economist of Allianz. "Buying state bonds could influence the price of state bonds, but wouldn't have much impact on the economy."
(Reporting By Eva Taylor and John O'Donnell; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt and David Stamp)