MUNICH, Germany (Reuters) - Fears of a resurgence of euro zone inflation are exaggerated, so winding down from stimulus has not been discussed, a top European Central Bank policymaker said on Thursday, even as the bank's top hawks suggested that the exit may be close.
Responding to German criticism of the ECB's ultra-easy policy stance, French central bank chief Francois Villeroy de Galhau said the spike in German inflation will be temporary and argued that policymakers need to look through such swings caused by oil prices.
He spoke just as the two Germans on the Governing Council raised the prospect of winding down the bank's 2.3 trillion-euro ($2.46 trillion) asset-buying program, a taboo topic so far from ECB President Mario Draghi.
"Some seem to fear a resurgence of inflation; this is very exaggerated," Villeroy said. "Although quantitative easing will obviously not last forever, we clearly did not discuss tapering or any exit strategy.
Having fought the risk of deflation for years, the ECB is now under pressure as higher energy costs feed into other prices, igniting calls for the bank to ease off the accelerator - particularly in Germany, where inflation is already close to the ECB's 2 percent target.
Jens Weidmann, the powerful president of Germany's central bank, meanwhile, argued that the bloc's economic outlook is positive and the inflation rate is now gradually approaching the level the ECB would define as price stability, its ultimate mandate.
"If this price development is sustainable, the prerequisite for the withdrawal from the loose monetary policy is created," he added.
Executive Board member Sabine Lautenschlaeger went even further this week, arguing that preconditions for a stable rise in inflation are in place, so the ECB could soon start to plan an exit from its unprecedented stimulus program.
Still, any exit from stimulus may be far into the future. Draghi made it clear this month that underlying inflation was too weak and surging oil prices are almost exclusively responsive for the recent rise in prices.
Reaffirming Draghi's argument, Villeroy also pushed back at German critics, noting that the ECB was making policy for the entire euro zone, not just one, albeit, big member.
"The inflation differences between countries are consistent with their different national economic situations: growth and employment are also stronger in Germany," he said.
"It is not our aim to keep interest rates low for too long," Villeroy said. "They are merely the necessary condition today for gradually returning towards our inflation target, and ensuring lastingly higher interest rates in the future."
Reporting by Joern Poltz, Balazs Koranyi and Andreas Framke, editing by Larry King